On a recent June morning, six-year-olds Ethan Lee and Adrian D’Souza were hunched over a book about sharks in their kindergarten classroom at James Madison Primary School in Edison. Ethan read the chapter titles to Adrian.
“Shark attacks!” Adrian piped up when Ethan asked which chapter he wanted. Ethan began breezing through words like “surfboard,” pausing only briefly to sound out “tugged.”
Like most kindergarteners, at the beginning of the year Ethan couldn’t read at all. After a year of daily reading and writing workshops at his full-day kindergarten, he now reads books and even writes his own.
Full-day kindergarten has spread rapidly in recent years as a part of national efforts to increase the rigor of elementary school, raise tests scores and increase learning in higher grades. But next year, kindergartners at James Madison may not advance so quickly: The district is poised to switch to half days in the midst of New Jersey’s $11 billion budget crisis.
Across the country, other districts are also gutting kindergarten programs as they try to balance school budgets amid fiscal crises. Arizona has eliminated funding for full-day kindergarten. Districts in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan also are considering cuts. Chicago was planning to end its full-day program until the state legislature gave the district a last-minute budget reprieve.
The kindergarten cuts come just as many states are adopting new Common Core State Standards, which include 93 items that kindergartners are expected to master. The items, developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governor’s Association, range from counting to 100 to identifying the difference between a book author and an illustrator.
Full-day kindergarten is particularly vulnerable to cuts in hard times. Only 12 states require schools to offer it, according to Kristie Kauerz, director of Pre-K to Third Grade program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Meanwhile, major cuts in aid to school districts are forcing local boards to fire large swaths of their teaching force. Switching from six to three hours of kindergarten is an easy way to eliminate positions.
The U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, in his push for a $10 billion bill to save teachers jobs, has said that potential layoffs are putting all-day kindergarten on the line, “even though all research shows that students benefit from extra instruction.”
Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, has studied the benefits of full-day versus half-day kindergarten. In a 2008 study she found significant gains in both reading and math among full-day students.
“It’s too bad to see this retrenchment,” Votruba-Drzal said. “All kids are benefiting from it, and they’re benefiting from it equally, so it’s a shame across the board.”
Votruba-Drzal’s study and others like it show that gains tended to level off at around third grade, but she says that’s because children in full-day kindergarten tend to be more disadvantaged at home. She says half-day students, who are more likely to be white and wealthy, are able to catch up later in elementary school.
Edison is a mostly upper middleclass community, but the town is becoming more ethnically diverse. The number of children eligible to receive free or reduced-priced school lunches has increased by 65 percent in the past decade -- from about 1,300 students to nearly 2,200. At James Madison, only 11 percent of students speak English as a first language at home.
The town’s cutbacks mean that kindergarten will go from six hours a day, including lunch and recess, to two and half. The principal at James Madison, Regina Foxx, says that at least a half hour a day will be spent taking off coats and getting children ready to leave at the end of the day, meaning actual teaching time will be more like two hours.
“It’s such an assault on our ability to get our children where we need to get them,” said Foxx. “For children at risk, we’re losing a year.”
Parents also are worried, and not just about academics. Ethan’s mother, Katherine Lee, says the changes will hurt parents who depend on school for childcare. “They are deciding not to send their kids to [public] school,” she said.
James Madison had only recently introduced the reading and writing workshops. Mrs. Filson, a veteran kindergarten teacher who has Ethan in her class, said she’s been “blown away” by the results. “Because of the time that they’re exposed, I have much higher reading levels at the end of this year,” she said.
Along with moving the workshops to alternate days, other subjects will also be trimmed. Science and social studies will go from every day to one day a week. Time spent on games and play at the end of the day will be reduced and transformed into a more structured “choice workshop.” Recess at James Madison, usually the time when children meet with a music teacher, will be cut. So will “literacy center,” which teachers used for working on words and sounds.
District officials already are changing the curriculum in the first and second grade to account for the learning losses they expect because of the kindergarten cutbacks. Instead of planning first and second grade lessons for students who have mastered reading and writing, curriculum specialists are coming up with lessons for students who have only been “exposed” to those skills
Thirty years ago, only a quarter of schoolchildren were enrolled in full-day programs. That percentage has grown nationally due in part to research showing significant academic gains for students who participated. Now, two-thirds of children in kindergarten are enrolled for an entire day. In New Jersey, the number of full-day kindergarten programs has increased from 325 to 366 during the past five years and they now outnumber half-day programs by 2 to 1. The state is also working on guidelines to help districts improve kindergarten after a 2008 study found the quality of many programs serving the poorest districts was mediocre or worse.
“We really want to support kindergarten programs,” said Ellen Wolock, who directs early childhood education for New Jersey Department of Education. “We understand how important they are—just as important as pre-school.”
Keith Gayler, the director of standards at the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the Common Core State Standards, which New Jersey adopted last month, are meant to be applied to either half-day or full-day classes. As time in kindergarten is cut, many experts and educators fear that the standard's focus on math and literacy could lead states and teachers to ignore other fundamentals, like social-emotional development. Ed Miller, a senior researcher at the Alliance for Childhood, worries that “more and more of the time in kindergarten classes is going to be drilling kids for those tests.”
In teacher Ella Filson’s kindergarten class in Edison, there is no drilling. Math and reading are incorporated into what seems like fun and games. During an afternoon math session, the students practiced addition and subtraction with games involving frogs and ladybugs. They wrote their equations in crayon on construction paper, a skill not required by the new national standards until first grade.
Many of the children can do things that more closely match expectations for first and second grade. All of the students produced dozens of books over the course of the year. Like several of her classmates, Manushri Bapat, 6, reported that “writing stories” was her favorite subject. One of Manushri’s books explained how to make a rainbow. In another, complete with vivid illustrations, she told the story of burning herself with hot water and traveling in a helicopter to the hospital.
On the last full day of kindergarten this June, Mrs. Filson gathered her class on the rug at the end of the school day to read one last book. The story was about a girl starting kindergarten accompanied by her imaginary friend. Mrs. Filson held up the book as she turned the pages, and her class occasionally read sentences along with her in unison. “So many great books we didn’t have time to read this year,” she sighed, before closing the book and directing the children to gather their backpacks. Then they filed out, ready for first grade.