Full-day kindergarten is a key to early learning

A Feb. 2 editorial in The News Tribune (“Full-day K: Best possible way to spend on schools?”) questioned whether spending money on full-day kindergarten is worth the investment. The editorial ends with, “The issue is at least worth a conversation.”

That conversation has already occurred — many times — and is over now. And the Legislature has decided it believes that full-day kindergarten must be a part of basic education and funded accordingly. I agree with the Legislature.

Lawmakers didn’t arrive at this conclusion casually. In 2006, the Washington Learns committee — created by Gov. Chris Gregoire — was tasked with creating a “world-class, learner-focused, seamless education system.” The committee’s final report, released November 2006, included a 10-point strategy for improving early learning.

Early learning programs and full-day kindergarten were listed in the 10 points. Regarding the latter, the report states: “Most young children are ready for more than a few hours of learning opportunities in half-day kindergarten. Their eager minds and growing social, emotional and physical maturity seek out more hands-on learning and exploration, and a full day gives teachers more time to make sure children are ready for first grade.”

The Washington Learns conclusion, in part, led to passage of a state law that phases in funding for full-day kindergarten.

In raising the question about whether full-day kindergarten is worth the investment, The News Tribune cites a recent report from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. The report plainly admits that it only considered test scores; it did not examine any social or emotional gains from full-day kindergarten.

But more than 20 years of research has been conducted on the topic. A 2013 survey of teachers showed that social and emotional learning “is critical to student success in school, work and life.” The survey noted that social and emotional learning increases student interest in learning and it improves student behavior, among other benefits.

The WSIPP study also claims that any benefits gained from full-day kindergarten seem to vanish a few grades later. But we don’t measure the success of fifth-graders by seeing how they score on eighth-grade tests — there are too many variables in between the years to make quality comparisons. We judge each grade by how well a student does at the end of a school year vs. where he or she started.

Why do I believe that full-day kindergarten deserves our investment? A key reason is the Common Core State Standards. Schools are implementing the standards this year. The standards set a high bar for all students to reach at every year, including kindergarten.

And because the standards build on themselves — students need to master first-grade standards before they go to second grade — kindergarten becomes as important as any other year. They are perhaps even more important because they are so foundational.

Cynthia Evans, principal of Helen B. Stafford Elementary School in Tacoma, put it very well. “How can we expect students to develop literacy, math and social skills in a developmentally appropriate context in a half-day program?” she asked.

Many of her students come to Stafford without English or social skills. “It takes time to catch up and build confident, enthusiastic students; students ready for success,” she said.

When I took office in January 2009, one of the first things I did was establish a list of my top priorities. Included on my list was to promote early learning opportunities.

My position is pretty simple: I believe that investing in full-day kindergarten is investing in early learning. And it is an essential investment to ensure that our children succeed in the future.

Randy Dorn is Washington’s superintendent of public instruction.