Failing the assignment

Andy Matthews

Nevada's public education system rightly demands that students do their homework, think critically and resist following the crowd in response to peer pressure.

Yet sadly, they do not practice what they preach – and it is the students and the public who pay the price. The students pay in the form of a sub-standard education, while the public foots the bill for increasingly expensive programs that produce little benefit.

Exhibit A is the current debate over full-day kindergarten, which has demonstrated the shallowness of proponents’ arguments, based more on emotional solidarity and desire for public money than solid research.

A May 3 session of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee revealed a sharp contrast in the degrees of seriousness present on either side of the debate. While full-day kindergarten proponents submitted an authorless booklet that draws on a paltry 14 studies to support their case, Joe Enge, education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, countered with the Institute’s recently published bibliography of nearly 300 studies and papers that have examined the effects of full-day kindergarten programs.

As NPRI states in the bibliography’s overview, “Attempts by other parties to provide a source of references on the subject have, unfortunately, fallen short of what is needed, usually because of the inclusion of too few studies. Given the importance of this issue, and in the spirit of honest academic research and debate, NPRI has chosen to provide a more comprehensive bibliography of the papers and studies available.”

Perhaps because of its limited scope, the proponents’ booklet, titled "Full-Day Kindergarten in Nevada: Learning to Learn," omits a huge array of research on the subject, much of which contradicts their assertions that full-day kindergarten programs are beneficial to students.

As if to underscore the booklet’s lack of seriousness, its "summaries" section consists simply of a photocopy from the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development. The booklet does, however, boast an impressive and expensive-looking binding, cover and tabs that give it an air of authority apparently intended to mask its lack of substance (an old trick with which any indolent student is familiar).

As the testimony continued before the committee, the logical flaws in full-day kindergarten proponents’ reasoning only became more obvious and numerous. Several teachers of full-day kindergarten classes already in place were trotted out to offer stories of personal experience intended to buttress the argument for expanding these programs. These witnesses extended invitations to "Come to the classes and see what great things are being done!"

No doubt, upon visiting a full-day kindergarten class, you would find energetic kids learning from dedicated teachers. But such anecdotal evidence, while heartwarming, contributes no real substance to the debate because it does nothing to refute the statistical evidence that undercuts the proponents’ case.

In particular, what you wouldn’t see is the evidence – gathered through extensive research (imagine that) – showing that in most cases any benefits enjoyed by students in full-day kindergarten programs disappear within a few years. Kindergarten teachers can’t be expected to know this independently. Their experience with students is, after all, limited to the kindergarten year. So they’re not around anymore when, in the third or fourth grade, any benefits enjoyed because of full-day kindergarten have disappeared.

But while we shouldn’t blame kindergarten teachers for seeing things the way they do (nor should we question their intentions), we should at least recognize their lack of credentials for testifying on the key question at issue. Trusting their judgment of the long-term effects of full-day kindergarten programs based on their necessarily limited knowledge would be like picking the winner of a football game because one team returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.

Absent serious research and study of the real effects of full-day kindergarten, how can anyone – a visitor to a classroom or the teacher himself – know whether such programs produce real, lasting benefits to the students? They can’t – and hence the need for such research.

It’s troubling that no one within the education establishment seems to have recognized this or taken it seriously enough to bother with an honest, in-depth examination of the extensive research available on the subject. The lockstep in which all 17 of the state’s superintendents, its 17 school boards and the teacher union in Nevada march as they push for all-day kindergarten represents uncritical, blind and dangerous group-think of the worst kind. Either these proponents did not know that contradictory studies exist, revealing a failure to “do their homework” before seeking expensive funding, or they were aware of the contradictory studies and intentionally left them out of the discussion. Neither scenario is acceptable.

The irony here would be delicious if the implications weren’t so potentially dangerous. No teacher worth his salary would accept such shoddy research work from a student. Surely we should expect more from those in whose hands we place our children’s future.

Andy Matthews is communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. NPRI’s bibliography of papers and studies on full-day kindergarten programs is available at