Even as a harsh economy and tight state finances have led many states to cut back on investments in young children, our neighbors to the north are doing the opposite. In October, the Government of Ontario announced plans to launch full-day kindergarten for 35,000 young Ontarians in fall 2010. The province will scale up full-day kindergarten over the next five years, providing full-day kindergarten to all 4- and 5-year-olds by the 2015-2016 school year. In Canada, “kindergarten” refers to preschool-like programs for both 4- and 5-year-olds. This expansion will make Ontario the only place in North America that guarantees full-day early learning for all 4- and 5-year-olds.
The Ontario Ministry of Education recently published the list of the first 600 schools that will offer full-day kindergarten—and also called on local school boards to extend full-day kindergarten over the summer. It’s not clear how many school boards will actually rise to the challenge, since many may lack the resources or administrative resources to do so. But it’s encouraging to see Ontario thinking about making kindergarten not just full-day but full-year, since research shows that at-risk children tend to fall behind over the summer, when they’re not in school, and differences in how much children learn—or forget—over the summer are a major contributor to economic and racial/ethnic achievement gaps. Additionally, many parents of all income levels struggle to find decent care for their younger children during summer vacations.
Ontario’s shift towards full-day kindergarten is part of a broader redefinition of the role of kindergarten in the province, from childcare to early learning. The new full-day kindergarten programs are designed to equip children with a solid foundation in early literacy, language, math, and self-regulatory skills before they enter 1st grade. To achieve this goal, full-day kindergarten will integrate key elements of both high-quality childcare and education, with classes team-taught by a primary school teacher and an early childhood educator. The Government is also seeking to use the full-day program to create a more integrated early learning experience that will ease children’s transition from kindergarten to the primary grades.
One side note: At a proposed 26 children per class, Ontario’s full-day kindergarten will have larger class sizes than those recommended by most American early childhood experts and advocacy groups. But the Ontario Government seems to view relatively large kindergarten class sizes as an acceptable and necessary trade-off to offer full-day kindergarten to all children. Here in the U.S., as states continue to struggle with tight budgets, and the federal government also faces fiscal reckoning, it would be very useful if policymakers had a much more solid research based for thinking about and making such trade-offs, so that they can the most value out of limited resources as they invest in early childhood programs.