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Better Literacy Skills Linked to a Full Day of Pre-K

A new report from Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland shows that children who spend a full school day in a pre-kindergarten program do better on tests of reading skills by the end of kindergarten than their counterparts who attend for half the day.

The report, released earlier this month, examined the impact of the school district’s full-day Head Start program on school readiness, academic performance, and students’ need for special education services in kindergarten. While the literacy gains were significant, the full-day programs did not appear to make a significant difference, across subgroups, on children’s “readiness” for kindergarten or their performance on early math tests at the end of the kindergarten year. Nor did it appear to provide a boost to students who are learning English as their second language.

In the 2007-2008 school year, MCPS launched its first Head Start full-day pre-K program in an effort to improve academic achievement for children who live in poverty, have high mobility, and have limited English proficiency. All Title I Schools were offered the opportunity to expand their existing half-day Head Start programs (3 hours and 15 minutes) into full-day programs (6 hours and 15 minutes) using Title I funding. Ten elementary schools (13 Head Start programs) chose to participate.  The full-day programs offer expanded learning time in mathematics, literacy and vocabulary development, the arts, physical education, social interaction, and oral language.
The study compared school readiness at the beginning of kindergarten and reading and math performance by the end of kindergarten between students in full-day Head Start and students in half-day Head Start. It also compared students in Head Start full-day pre-K programs with their peers in the county’s half-day pre-K programs that are not part of Head Start.  And it examined differences between students who attended Head Start full-day pre-K programs and those with similar demographics and similar school readiness who had no MCPS pre-K experience.
When comparing half-day Head Start students with full-day Head Start students, the study showed that students attending the full-day program were 44 percent more likely to meet the reading benchmark of Level 4 by the end of kindergarten than those attending the half-day program. The full day had a particularly positive effect on literacy skills for African American and male students. The researchers found no effects on school readiness or math skills. (See this Washington Post article for a good summary of those findings.)
When comparing full-day Head Start students to half-day students in MCPS’s own pre-K program, the study showed full-day students making similar gains. And the effect was shown to be strong among African American students, female students and students receiving Free and Reduced-price Meal Services (FARMS).  In this case, the full-day program did correlate with improvement in school readiness among male students and students receiving services known as ESOL, or English for Speakers of Other Languages. But again, there was no difference between the two groups on math performance.
When looking at Head Start full-day pre-K students and students with no MCPS pre-K experience who had similar demographics and school readiness levels, students in the full-day program were 42 percent more likely to meet reading benchmark Level 4 than those who did not.  In addition, African American students in the full-day program were 2.71 times as likely as those who were not to meet the targeted reading benchmark. Female students and students receiving FARMS also performed significantly better than their peers with no MCPS pre-K experience. These are especially important findings because Head Start students exceeded evaluators’ expectation that students would perform at the same academic level in reading and mathematics by the end of kindergarten.
The study also looked at whether students who participated in the Head Start full-day program required fewer special education services, and the findings were positive, showing that the reduction in special education services was statistically significant.
Overall, the study found that the positive results the Head Start full-day program had on the overall group of students were still present at the end of kindergarten. This was especially true for African American students. However, it was not the case for Hispanic students and ESOL students. More research needs to be done to find or develop a successful model that effectively supports pre-K ESOL students.
The positive impact on literacy is significant. The evaluators suggested that this is because the pre-K curriculum focuses more intensely on literacy and language arts. To see similar positive impacts on math outcomes, it will be important for MCPS to take a closer look at pre-K mathematics instruction, scheduling, materials, etc. The Office of Shared Accountability, which conducted the study, includes this as a recommendation.
What does this report mean for full-day pre-K programs? That longer instructional time seems to have a positive impact on students’ reading skills by the end of kindergarten. It will be important to study how students progress through the elementary grades to get a better picture of the lasting impacts of full-day pre-K programs on students’ reading skills by the end of third grade, which is an important marker for long-term academic success.