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.

By , Staff writer

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    In this March 1 photo, Bill Fulton, dressed as Ready Freddy, visits with pre-kindergarten students at a public school in Buffalo, N.Y.
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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.

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: 

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  • 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.

In Congress, a bill by Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania would give incentives for preschool teachers to earn bachelor’s degrees within six years and for programs to maintain a low student-teacher ratio.

Research is emerging in support of the importance of coaching and other professional development for preschool teachers, Whitehurst says. But studies in the K-12 realm generally don’t show that higher degrees for teachers correlate with more effective practice in the classroom.

While Boston’s director of early childhood education, Jason Sachs, can’t say for certain what has caused the effects, he’s particularly excited that the impact of preschool has still shown up when those students start taking statewide standardized tests in third grade. (Some studies have shown preschool gains fading out by then, though many others have shown longer-lasting effects.)

In Boston, the mayor and school superintendents have strongly backed the public preschool system. Increasingly, superintendents will want to offer preschool because they’ll “see it as way to close the achievement gap,” Mr. Sachs says.

The New Jersey study is an update of a long-term look at the impact of the Abbott Preschool Program, high-quality pre-K in 31 largely low-income districts.  Previously it had found sizable effects as students entered kindergarten. Now it has found that the effects, while somewhat smaller, are still visible in language, math, and science scores in fourth and fifth grades.

Students who had two years of the Abbott program, starting at age 3, had effects ranging from .22 to .37 of a standard deviation. The effects of just one year were smaller.

Without the combination of high standards, adequate funding, and continuous improvement, “you’re not going to get the same kinds of results,” says Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University.

New Jersey also has focused on improving K-3 education. That’s “really important for making sure the gains that are made in preschool programs are sustained all the way up,” says Laura Bornfreund, senior policy analyst for early education at the New America Foundation, a public policy think tank in Washington.

Mr. Barnett hopes that Mr. Obama’s references to high-quality preschool signal a real willingness to invest enough to bring about such results. But “there’s always a danger people will want to do this on the cheap,” he says.

NIEER estimates that high-quality preschool costs a national average of $8,000 per child per year. 

NIEER also backs universal preschool rather than targeting based on income. Not only do students learn from their peers, but 1 in 10 students who repeat a grade is from the middle class, Barnett says, so it would be beneficial to give them the boost of better preschool.

If states can’t afford to cover everyone, one way to start is by offering preschool to a limited number of districts with the highest need, but offering it to all children within that district, Barnett suggests.

Under Obama’s plan, the federal government would partner with states that want to scale up or start high-quality programs for 4-year-olds whose families are below 200 percent of the poverty level – but it would also include incentives to encourage the inclusion of middle-class kids, Education Week reports.

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