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Chloe Gibbs on Full-Day Kindergarten and its Impact on Academic Achievement

  • Chloe Gibbs
  • March 16 2021
  • PC93-2021

Chloe Gibbs
Chloe Gibbs

In the last few decades, there has been a major expansion in the number of states and localities offering full-day kindergarten. In this podcast episode, economist Chloe Gibbs of the University of Notre Dame talks about how these expansions impacted academic achievement and outcomes at the school district level.

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Chancellor: Hello and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research & Policy Podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. For this podcast, we hear from economist Chloe Gibbs of the University of Notre Dame about full day kindergarten and whether it can reduce achievement gaps. To start off, I asked Professor Gibbs to introduce herself.

Gibbs: I’m Chloe Gibbs. I’m an assistant professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame. I am really interested in how we invest in early childhood and what interventions and programs and policies we leverage to try to affect children’s early childhood years, particularly in education. I do a lot of work around the programs that we’ve leveraged to help disadvantaged kids get ready for their entry into formal schooling.

Chancellor: To start the conversation, I asked Professor Gibbs to give us a history lesson on what the transition to full day kindergarten in the U.S. has looked like.

Gibbs: This has been an interesting policy area, in part because there were a lot of shifts, sort of wartime shifts in what schooling looked like. And as women had to increasingly work, we saw scale up of various early childhood programs, sort of more pre-K and childcare, but also expansions of kindergarten. And then that retracted in the postwar period. We are now sort of more recently in the in the past couple of decades, returning to expanding the school day. Expanding the amount of time, the duration that kids are spending in formal school settings. And some of that has been pressing down to younger ages. And I’m particularly interested in how we’ve used the kindergarten year, which is really viewed as this kind of transition from home or childcare or all of the settings kids are in before they enter school and then sort of getting them ready for what their schooling then looks like when they’re in more formal classroom settings. I think a lot of school districts and states and policymakers have really thought about how can we best use this year to get kids ready, prepared, better acclimated into these school settings. One of the ways that the districts have done that is to expand the time that kids are in school. And it really was the case that for many years, particularly in the late 80s, early 90s, districts that serve disadvantaged student populations use this as a tool to get kids into school and work with them on their early skill development as sort of a way to ensure that they were getting access to what we know to be kind of an important period for developing those early skills. Then over time, we’ve seen increasingly all districts, so districts serving both advantaged and disadvantaged populations really making a move towards expanding the day. So that kindergarten really looks a lot more both in structure and format and content like first grade and beyond.

Chancellor: There’s been growing attention to the importance of the early childhood years on children’s development. I asked Professor Gibbs give us the quick version on just why early childhood is so important for kids’ development.

Gibbs: That’s right. I think there are three major reasons, as I see it, that we’re really focused on the early childhood years. One is that I think we have become increasingly aware of the disparities that exist as soon as kids arrive at school. We have focused a lot more on the kinds of inputs and investments and interventions that are happening prior to school arrival. What’s contributing to the existence, the manifestation of these achievement gaps very early in kids’ schooling trajectory? I think that’s one fact that really sort of startled people into thinking more about the early childhood years. And then we have, what is largely a conceptual argument about how when we make investments early, there’s a longer time horizon over which to realize the benefits of those investments. They may act as sort of complementarities to what happens thereafter. We give kids these early skills and that might then make them better able to absorb and make use of the skills that they develop thereafter. Then finally, I think we also have a notion from those who study child development and think about how the brain forms that really the brain is most malleable in those early years. We should really capitalize on the fact that we can make the most sort of effective changes or influences to brain architecture at that time frame. And I really feel like that’s kind of those three facts about the world that have kind of all come together for a real focus on being intentional and efficient and effective with what we do in the early childhood years.

Chancellor: But Gibbs says that despite the emphasis on early childhood development, full day kindergarten hasn’t received as much attention as a lot of other interventions.

Gibbs: I think of full day kindergarten as probably the primary way from a policy standpoint that we have changed kids experiences in the early childhood years. There’s been a lot of talk about universal pre-K and about Head Start, the federally funded program for four kids from low-income families. And for all that talk, though, those are still sort of relatively small in terms of the number of kids affected by those kinds of programs relative to the number of kids that are in kindergarten and affected by the kinds of structural changes we make to kindergarten. So virtually everybody goes to kindergarten in the United States. And of those, those kids, an increasing share, are experiencing full day. That is a really a doubling of the instructional time they’re spending in school at, you know, five and six years old. I think it’s kind of quietly been the way in which districts have most influenced what kids are what kids are experiencing. And I think for that reason, we should be really interested in how effective that is as a as a structural change. And, you know, we are always sort of thinking about that as compared to the other things we could be doing in early childhood. And I think while there has really been this pretty dramatic shift and virtually all kids are in full day settings now, you know, I think it is still wise for us to think about whether that is really the best way to serve kids and their early childhood years. And should we be serving nearly everyone in that setting? Should we think about it as a more targeted intervention? Should we be, you know, sort of intervening even earlier? Because we know that, you know, three and four year old kids are sort of even more developmentally plastic and sort of malleable. And is kindergarten, maybe even a margin too late? I think, you know, it’s worthwhile to still be thinking about sort of all the ways in which we can invest and what’s kind of the optimal bundle and what works best for kids.

Chancellor: Professor Gibbs says that we don’t know as much about the impact of full day kindergarten as we might like and part of the story here is that it’s harder than you might think to compare children who are in full day kindergarten with those who are in half day or other settings.

Gibbs: I think one of the big challenges in in thinking about the impact of full day kindergarten has been isolating what is the full day kindergarten effect and what is really just the selection into either providing full day kindergarten at the school district or state level or the selection into going to full day kindergarten that families are making. There has been some work that has tried to, you know, sort of control for all of the things that might be influencing that decision. I have some experimental work that uses the fact that in some places, districts use lotteries to assign kids to full or half day because they didn’t have enough full day slots for everyone who was interested. There I am able to look at the effect of being in full day and sort of separate out any of these other decisions that parents and school districts are making. I think that’s in part why we’ve had limited work on the topic. It’s also the case that increasingly we’re able to look at kids’ outcomes because we have more metrics and we are assessing kids earlier and really thinking about the effects of lots of different programs. And so that has brought online more measures for us to think about using when we think when we’re exploring the effects of programs.

Chancellor: I asked Gibbs what factors might be driving the improvements in academic achievement for children who attend full day kindergarten.

Gibbs: I think when we think about what is impactful about an intervention in early childhood, it’s often really kind of a bundle of things that are happening or moving all at once. In the case of full day kindergarten, you know, sort of the first take when you think about what’s affecting kids’ outcomes is, oh, they’re spending more time in class. So more instructional time, we think could have a positive relationship with outcomes, although I think that was also an open question when thinking about little kids who, you know, are in these school settings and get tired and that sort of thing. But on top of the instructional time, you’re also thinking about, you know, what would kids have otherwise been doing in that time? Had they been in a half day, they would have spent their after school hours doing something, maybe that was watching TV, maybe that was taking music lessons. You could imagine that those different time use activities might be differentially beneficial relative to being in a classroom setting. You really have to think about sort of what is the full day kindergarten intervention crowding out. And then also when you’re in school all day, you’re potentially getting a nap, meals, maybe a snack, maybe recess time, some other things that we think are important for kids’ development. To the extent that full day kindergarten is also moving those things or increasing time spent on those things, that could also affect kids. And there’s sort of a final piece that I think is important in thinking about the policy impact, which is that as districts have expanded full day kindergarten provision, you could also imagine that that has improved the efficiency of what happens after kindergarten. Once you better prepare a kindergarten cohort, what you can do in first grade and what you can do in second grade might look different because you have this this better prepared cohort or this cohort that has had more exposure to a classroom setting and listening to a teacher and sort of all the skills they need to use in the classroom. You could also imagine some spillovers to nonparticipating peers or some systemic effects that capture the fact that now cohorts are better prepared.

Chancellor: For Professor Gibbs’ study, she was trying to learn more about the effect of kindergarten expansions—moves to full day kindergarten—by looking beyond the effects on individual students and trying to understand what was happening at a district level as they looked to move to full day kindergarten.

Gibbs: I was interested in the course of this study in looking at the effect of policy expansions. So, aggregating up from the individual level and really thinking about districts and states moving towards more full day kindergarten. They have some goals in mind. Right? They have in mind that they will improve third grade performance on tests, maybe performance beyond that. Maybe they also have in mind that they’ll improve behavior and that will lead to sort of better peer effects in the classroom or something like that. I was really interested in sort of how can we capture the fact that there has both been a lot of policy movement on this front. We have states expanding pretty dramatically over the last two decades and that the goal of the policy has been to really improve school system performance. Can we couple these two things, data on the expansions and data on student performance to get at that question? I assembled data on what state level provision of full day kindergarten looks like over time. And I assemble data from the Stanford Education Data Archive to look at test scores in third grade and beyond and basically map those cohorts of kids back to what they would have experienced in kindergarten to get a sense of what the relationship is between greater full day kindergarten provision and test score performance, both in terms of average performance, but also in terms of gaps between Hispanic and white students and black and white students.

Chancellor: Professor Gibbs uses two major sources of data to explore these questions about full day kindergarten in her study, so I asked her to describe these and tell us how she uses them.

Gibbs: One is to compile school enrollment data on kindergartners and the settings that they’re in. In that data, I can see kindergartners by states in each year and I can see what proportion of those kindergartners were on a full day setting. I use that data to construct a state by year measure of full day kindergarten participation. And then I match that on to education data that uses essentially state standardized tests, puts them all on an equated scale so that we can compare across states because, of course, every state has its own testing regime. And then I use those third through eighth grade test scores in both reading and math. I map those back to what full day kindergarten participation looked like when those kids were in kindergarten. This also allows me then to control for what was going on in pre-K in the States. I have some measures of the state’s pre-K program and of Headstart in the state to capture what might have happened before kids arrived at kindergarten in case there is some relationship between what a state’s doing on full day kindergarten and what they’re doing in the early childhood space before that. And then I can also look at these tests where gaps. The idea is looking at both sort of overall system performance, overall achievement in in averages, but also looking at whether or not this exacerbates or perhaps even diminishes inequality through this extra intervention. And so all of that data assembled allows me to then match these things up and explore the question of what’s been the impact of these expansions on these outcomes of interest. And I think the findings advance our understanding of how full day kindergarten is working in the in the field, because we see both sort of improved average performance, which is consistent with the existing literature on participant level effects. But then we also see this widening of gaps, which I think is associated with the fact that full day kindergarten has moved from largely being targeted at the most disadvantaged kids, also the kids who reap the sort of biggest benefits from it and has moved to a more universal intervention. And to the extent those more advantaged kids also benefit, you can see this widening of gaps.

Chancellor: I asked Gibbs more about what she found and how we can use this information.

Gibbs: In the results, what I see on average is improved reading performance associated with more full day kindergarten. This is at third grade and beyond. I think important to note that this is a few years removed from having been exposed to full day kindergarten, which means there’s at least some persistence of the effect in both reading and math. Math had been previously pretty limited in the literature we had explored, and that’s where I actually see some of the most persistent effects in in kids’ achievement. And then in terms of gaps, I see this widening in particular of the Hispanic white gap and in particular in math. What you see is sort of overall performance improving, but that in doing so, it has actually sort of widened the gap between the higher performing white students and the sort of lower performing Hispanic students, even though everyone has kind of benefited from the intervention. I think what I think is important about this is really thinking about targeting interventions and whether and sort of policy design, how we should deploy a policy to greatest effect. And it really depends on what we’re trying to improve. Are we trying to improve sort of overall achievement or average achievement or are we trying to mitigate gaps and get traction on those, in which case maybe targeted interventions are more effective at doing that? I think these are really the important policy design questions that I think we’ve moved beyond the big overarching questions of whether interventions in early childhood could be effective. I think we definitely have a body of evidence that suggests that. And now the next set of questions for researchers to tackle is really around what are the optimal policies? Who should be served, how should programs be targeted? Those kinds of questions will really get us that to a place where we’re more efficiently serving kids in their early childhood years.

Chancellor: I asked Professor Gibbs what comes next and says she thinks it’s important to look beyond just academic achievement outcomes and at other areas that may be affected by moves to full day kindergarten.

Gibbs: I’m really interested in moving beyond just academic achievement outcomes. I think there’s a number of ways in which we would expect these policies to also affect families and their use of other programs. I’m really interested in whether expansions of full day kindergarten have affected maternal employment and whether they have affected families use of childcare subsidies. We have childcare subsidies in this country that that serve school age children. You could imagine that as kids are moved into longer school days, that perhaps they no longer need to use childcare subsidies for those hours. And so perhaps we’re crowding out some childcare subsidy use. I’d be interested in exploring that further. And then I’m also interested in what this movement in the public school space has done to private school enrollment. So has as full day kindergarten has expanded. Has that shifted parents who would have previously sent their kids to full day settings and private schools back into the public system, which I think, you know, could have both positive and negative implications for school systems. I think it’s important to be able to document really what those what those patterns look like. I think there’s still a number of questions about really assessing the full impact of these kinds of expansions. And also, I think, you know, this really sits in sort of a broader set of questions about really nailing down what works in early childhood, for whom, on what outcomes, in what settings. You know, sort of a variety of questions that would really help us better fill in the picture of what policy interventions are most effective and can help kids the most.

Chancellor: Thanks to Professor Gibbs for sharing this research with us. If you would like to learn more about her research you can find her at chloegibbs.com or on twitter at @chloergibbs.

This podcast was supported as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation but its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that Office, any other agency of the Federal government, or the Institute for Research on Poverty. To catch new episodes of the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast, you can subscribe wherever you find your podcasts. You can also find all of our past episodes on the Institute for Research on Poverty website. Our theme music for this episode is “Staring Straight” by Maarten De Boer. Thanks for listening.


Child Development & Well-Being, Children, Education & Training, K-12 Education