The Ontario government has released the results of reports completed more than a year ago showing that the impact of its $1.5 billion per year full-day kindergarten program is mixed. Whatever benefits children gain are likely to fade as they get older.

In 2010, Ontario’s Liberal government began rolling out a program for full-day kindergarten in the province, a plan that will be completed in 2014. The first studies of educational and social outcomes from the first three years of the program show mixed results.

Selected information released in a government press release on Sept. 3 made no mention of any reservations about the program. “In every area, students improved their readiness for Grade 1 and accelerated their development,” stated the press release.

The study was conducted by the Ministry of Education in collaboration with Queen’s University’s Social Program Evaluation Group and McMaster University’s Offord Centre for Child Studies from 2010 to 2012. It measured children’s outcomes in the areas of physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognition, and communication skills and general knowledge. The Ontario government’s report, which was meant to summarize and add to the reports by McMaster and Queen’s universities, concluded that children attending full-day kindergarten for two years had the least vulnerability in all domains and that children who transitioned from a year of regular to full-day kindergarten had a 50 per cent improvement in development.

The individual studies conducted by the universities, however, report more nuanced findings. Queen’s University found that English students in full-day kindergarten show better readiness when they come from “high need schools,” but that these benefits decline in schools that are more socially advantaged. Across social spectrums, special-needs students, however, were better off in the former part-time kindergarten program. Researchers suggest that special-needs students benefit from spending more time in one-on-one settings with family or in other arrangements.

The study also noted that overcrowded full-day kindergarten classrooms were sources of behavioural problems and did not have the proper infrastructure to meet the needs of the students. Also their surveys found that parents were more skeptical about the benefits of full-day kindergarten than the teachers and the administration.

McMaster’s report concluded that SK students attending full-day kindergarten had better scores in several domains during the first year in which the study was conducted. During the second year, however, children in regular kindergarten had better scores in almost all areas. The study notes that students in full-day kindergarten for two years had the highest increase in emotional maturity and the greatest decrease in vulnerability.

These findings were largely based on subjective Early Development Instrument scores assigned to students by their teachers. “Teachers will do their best to assess children but rating ‘cooperation,’ for example, is more art than science,” Andrea Mrozek of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada said in the Ottawa Citizen. Researchers also did not have access to the students’ report card marks in Grade 1 and did not have a full data set. McMaster notes that it was unable to match the results belonging to one student across years one and two of the study.

This is not the first time that the benefits of full-day kindergarten have been called into question. A recent report from the University of Manitoba concluded that by high school, there was no difference in the way full and half day kindergarten students performed academically. A 2010 meta-analysis by Duke University also noted that the educational benefits disappear over time, but that kids from full-day kindergarten experience behavioural problems and a more negative attitude towards school later in their schooling.