What's needed for preschool to pay off? Two studies offer insights
President Obama and members of Congress aim to make preschool more widely available. Two new studies on preschool programs evaluate academic gains – and offer clues about what it takes to boost student progress.
President Obama’s plan to expand high-quality preschool is expected to emerge in greater detail with his budget proposal in early April. While it’s unclear if it will go anywhere given the austere mood in Washington, members of Congress have already introduced (or reintroduced) no fewer than half a dozen pre-K bills.Skip to next paragraph
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As Washington and the public debate how much and how best to invest in preschool, two new studies of large-scale programs – one in multiple districts in New Jersey and one in Boston – have shown significant gains for students, compared with similar peers who were not enrolled.
Backers of these programs have identified factors they believe contribute to success. The following were found to be the case in both settings:
- Teachers’ educational backgrounds, pay, and support (such as coaching) are all higher than is typical at the preschool level.
- They are full-day programs open to all students of a certain age group, regardless of family income.
- They offer curricula linked to system-wide educational standards.
- School districts monitor preschool teacher and student improvement on an ongoing basis.
The studies themselves weren’t designed to isolate any of those factors to measure their direct impact – and more research doing just that is needed to give policymakers a clear road map to success, says Grover Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institution in Washington.
“Everyone should applaud programs that are generating big gains for children who desperately need to be ready for school,” Mr. Whitehurst says. But it would be too soon for the federal government to attach certain strings to dollars, such as requiring preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, he says. The one exception: asking states applying for grants to “describe how they are going to learn what works,” he says.
The Boston study of just over 2,000 students in the public school district’s universal program for 4-to-5-year-olds found greater gains in vocabulary and math for participating students compared with nonparticipants, after one year, than seen in any other study of other large-scale pre-K programs around the US. It was released Thursday by the peer-reviewed journal Child Development.
The academic effects of being in the public preschool ranged from .45 to .62 of a standard deviation – a way of measuring effects across different types of studies. Some researchers roughly equate that size to 45 to 62 percent of the typical achievement gap between minority and white students.
The Boston study also found the preschool education to have positive effects on an important area of childhood development known as “executive function” – things such as working memory and attention to a task. Students of all racial and income backgrounds made gains, though the gains were particularly large for Hispanic students.
“Our results are a case study for what high-quality preschool can do … when you are really supporting the teachers,” says Christina Weiland, an incoming assistant professor at the University of Michigan who led the study while at Harvard.
The preschool program uses curricula in language and math that have research evidence behind them. Boston public school teachers may have been particularly well suited to implement the curriculum because of the coaching and because they must have bachelor’s degrees and earn a master’s degree within five years – and they’re paid at the same scale as other teachers, Ms. Weiland says.