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Kindergartners across the country have vastly different experiences, depending on where they live. Today we’re releasing a report, Raising Arizona: Lessons for the Nation from a State’s Experience with Full-Day Kindergartenthat examines the many shortcomings of kindergarten policy throughout the country. In particular, we examine how the experience of Arizona highlights some of the most important issues facing states today.

Based on 2011 Census data, nearly 1 in 4 students across the United States does not attend a full-day kindergarten class. This fact surprises many people because the K-12 education system is often talked about as though it were one fluid continuum. For 1st through 12th grade, maybe, but that’s not necessarily true for kindergarten.

Nearly 1 in 4 students across the United States does not attend a full-day kindergarten class. 

What also might be surprising is that many families have to pay for the second half of the day so their kindergartner gets a full-day experience. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that 12 states allow schools to charge tuition to attend parts of the day that exceed state minimum requirements for kindergarten.

Complicating things further, states vary greatly in their definitions of a full- and half-day. As the Education Commission of the States reports, across the nation half-day class lengths range two to three and a quarter hours per day, while full-day classes can last from about four to seven hours. It is worth noting that each of these wrinkles to the full-day kindergarten landscape are structural in nature; none of the above challenges in the current kindergarten system addresses the even messier, and important, question of instructional quality. With increased expectations for children under the Common Core State Standards and other education reform initiatives, a full-day of learning in kindergarten has become even more important. With full-day kindergarten comes more time for:

1. quality instruction;

2. teaching strategies that match how young children learn new content, such as developmental centers, child choice time, investigation, play;

3. teachers to help children build a base of knowledge about the world around them;

4. teachers to engage children in conversations and activities that develop skills such as persistence, self-regulation, working well with others, which are essential for their success in school and in life.

Though the new report addresses many of the lessons one can glean from Arizona’s legislative and implementation experiences, an important lesson remains for the everyday citizen: Without a clear message from the public about the desire for kindergarten classes to be treated just like every other grade in our K-12 system, legislators can easily continue to ignore the need for full-day kindergarten.

As Cathy Grace, former director of early childhood development at the Children’s Defense Fund, once told New America, “This discussion around full-day kindergarten wouldn’t be happening if we were talking about full-day 4th grade. People would think that was bizarre.”

Research supports an investment in full-day kindergarten and it’s time for state policy to follow suit by requiring in statute that districts make full-day kindergarten available to all families at no charge.