Starting out right: pre-k and kindergarten: at a glance

What’s the best early childhood combination communities can provide? Until now, research hasn’t had an answer. Although there is a wealth of research on pre-k and on kindergarten, they have been examined mainly in isolation. The Center for Public Education’s new report, “Starting Out Right,” looks at the effect of various combinations of pre-k and kindergarten on third grade reading skills -- a key predictor of future academic success.

Key Findings

Pre-k has significant, persistent benefits. Research has consistently shown that quality pre-kindergarten programs benefit not only individual students, but school districts and communities.  Nobel-Prize-winning economist James Heckman estimates that every dollar spent on early childhood education returns 10 cents annually over the life of a child (Heckman 2011).

Full-day kindergarten has significant benefits. The benefits of full-day kindergarten are clear. Research consistently shows that students who attend full-day kindergarten make greater academic gains and are less likely to be retained in the early grades than students who attend half-day kindergarten. However, it is not clear how long those benefits last.

A combination of pre-k and full-day kindergarten is best; but a combination of pre-k and half-day kindergarten is better than full-day kindergarten alone. Pre-k and full-day kindergarten presents the best combination. However, we looked to see what combination of other options would be best. In particular, this study focused on two combinations -- no pre-k and full-day kindergarten vs. pre-k and half-day kindergarten—and found that a combination of pre-k and half-day kindergarten was significantly better. Some highlights:

  • Students who attend pre-k and half-day kindergarten are more likely to have higher reading skills by the third grade than students who attend full-day kindergarten alone. The chances of a third-grader reaching the more advanced “Literal inference” reading level increased at a rate of 11 percent when students attended pre-k and half-day kindergarten rather than full-day kindergarten alone. The chances of a third-grader reaching the advanced “Extrapolation” reading level increased by a substantial 18 percent if students attended pre-k and half-day kindergarten rather than full-day kindergarten alone.
  • The impact of pre-k and half-day kindergarten was the greatest for Hispanic children, black children, English Language Learners (ELL) and children from low-income families. The chances of Hispanic children and those below the poverty line reaching a higher reading level ranged anywhere from seven percent (for the basic third-grade reading level, “Comprehension of words in context,”) to over 20 percent (for the higher “extrapolation” level). Similar results were found for black students, whose chances increased anywhere from 6 percent to 17 percent at the “extrapolation” level.

Mother’s education level was the exception. Pre-k and half-day kindergarten students whose mothers had only a high school diploma had 3rd grade reading skills that were slightly or no higher than their peers who attended full-day kindergarten alone. Keep in mind, however, that other studies of high-quality pre-k programs show greater impacts.

These findings do not take program quality into consideration. It’s reasonable to infer that the impact of high-quality pre-k would be even greater. Furthermore, the findings do not take into account how much time students spent in pre-k.

Early childhood education should be a collaboration between providers, schools, school boards, and the community. Close collaboration with communities, especially parents, Head Start, and other early childhood providers, is necessary in order to develop programs that best meet the community’s needs.

Published November 2011. Updated February 2012
This summary is of a study written and researched by Jim Hull, Center for Public Education's Senior Policy Analyst.