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Published in Print: April 4, 2001, as State-Financed Preschools Seen Yielding Gains

State-Financed Preschools Seen Yielding Gains

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At a time when states are assuming a larger role in the education of very young children, a study has found that state-financed preschool programs are adequately preparing youngsters to handle the demands of kindergarten and 1st grade.

Walter S. Gilliam and Edward F. Zigler, both researchers from the Yale University Child Study Center, reviewed evaluations from 12 states and the District of Columbia and found that, in general, prekindergarten and other preschool programs paid for by states had improved children's readiness for school. The programs helped, for example, in fostering social, motor, language, cognitive, and literacy skills.

"These state-funded preschool programs may help children enter school with a greater level of developmental competence, helping children to perform better in school during the critical early years," according to the study, which was released last week and appears in the March 28 issue of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly. The journal is published by the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Data from six of the states also suggest that such programs are preventing children from being held back a grade during their early schooling—a finding that the researchers say "may be one of the most robust" for state-financed preschools.

States Studied

For their study, "A Critical Meta-analysis of All Evaluations of State-Funded Preschool From 1977 to 1998: Implications for Policy, Service Delivery, and Program Evaluation," Walter S. Gilliam and Edward F. Zigler  examined evaluations from the following:
  Arkansas   Michigan
  District of
  Columbia 
  New York
  Florida   South
  Carolina
  Georgia   Texas
  Kentucky   Vermont
  Louisiana   Washington
  Maryland

For their analysis, the authors defined a state-funded preschool as one that serves children ages 3 to 5, provides some kind of classroom-based educational experience, and is "primarily funded and administered at the state level."

It is common, though, for states to offer such services through a range of providers, including public schools and child- care centers.

Lasting Impact?

The authors also conclude, however, that state preschool initiatives, which have grown dramatically in recent years, might not be living up to the expectations that some policymakers have set for them, at least according to the findings of the evaluations.

The effects of the programs are not as dramatic as those of some small, experimental programs, such as the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, which began in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s and has been found to have lasting effects into adulthood.

For example, the studies from the states—which were conducted either by state education agencies or by outside organizations such as universities—suggest that the preschool programs are not having a significant effect on children's behavior.

"The potential for preschool programs to serve as a preventive for later delinquency has attracted attention, and the general lack of positive impacts in this area is interesting," the authors write. The way the data on behavior outcomes were collected could provide an explanation, they add.

Florida, for instance, was the only state in which lasting effects on children's behavior were found. It was also the only state where evaluators actually reviewed discipline records. In other states that focused on the question, more subjective teacher or caregiver ratings were used. Mr. Gilliam and Mr. Zigler also looked at whether the state evaluations showed long-term benefits for the children who attended those preschool programs that have existed long enough for such results to be examined. While Maryland and New York have demonstrated positive effects into middle and high school, most states have found that the advantage for children fades out a year or two after they enter elementary school.

"These findings question the utility of holding preschool programs accountable for sustaining impacts beyond kindergarten or 1st grade," the authors write. "Because the primary stated goal of most all of these state preschool programs is the promotion of school readiness, evaluations of preschool program should arguably focus chiefly on impacts at the time of school entry."

In an interview last week, Mr. Gilliam said that while preschool programs are giving young children the skills they need for a good start, it then "becomes the school's job to sustain" that growth.

Limitations Found

The study also demonstrates the variability in how large-scale preschool programs are being evaluated at the state level.

While the researchers looked at evaluations from a dozen states and the District of Columbia, they actually could draw conclusions from only 10 of them, because three of the state evaluations—those from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Vermont—did not include a comparison group of similar children who did not attend the program.

Instead, those three states used tests of the children's performance before and after enrollment in the programs, a form of evaluation that Mr. Gilliam and Mr. Zigler found to have "serious methodological limitations."

"We don't find results in these programs, partly because they are watered-down programs and partly because they are watered-down evaluations," Mr. Gilliam said.

States are also not asking the same questions about their preschool programs. Twelve of the 13 evaluations, for instance, examined children's developmental progress, four looked at impacts on children's behavior, one state—Washington—gathered data on children's health, and three collected information on parental involvement.

Marilou Hyson, the associate executive director for professional development at the NAEYC, said she was concerned that many states that were spending money on preschool programs were not following up with money for research on them.

"You can't do good evaluation on the cheap," she said.

The Yale researchers concluded that the evaluations, in spite of their differences, provide the best assessment of whether publicly financed preschool programs are benefiting young children, most of whom come from low-income families.

"Considerably more needs to be known about the effectiveness of state-funded preschool programs," however, the authors write, so that the policymakers who are making decisions about the funding and governance of such programs can have accurate information.

Ms. Hyson added that she hopes state leaders don't lose their enthusiasm for providing funding for programs based on preliminary studies that are not well-designed.

In fact, some of the programs might be doing a better job than the evaluations indicate, said Anne Mitchell, the founder of Early Childhood Policy Research, a consulting group based in Climax, N.Y.

"If the methodological problems were corrected, you would probably have even more positive findings," Ms. Mitchell said.

Mr. Gilliam and Mr. Zigler recommend several guidelines for future evaluations of state preschool programs.

For example, they say, researchers should focus on outcomes that are realistic and are related to the goals of the programs, and they should use valid, reliable tests. And when random assignment to a preschool program or a control group is not possible, the authors recommend, researchers should use "the most comparable contrast groups possible."

Coverage of research is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Vol. 20, Issue 29, Pages 1,18

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