Education

Report Details Benefits of Pre-K Programs

By Linda Jacobson — December 13, 2005 4 min read
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Children who attend high-quality state preschool programs with well-trained teachers make significant academic gains, regardless of their families’ economic status, according to a new study.

“The Effects of State Prekindergarten Programs on Young Children’s School Readiness in Five States” is available from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Researchers from the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, a think tank in New Brunswick, N.J., examined a sample of more than 5,000 4-year-olds enrolled in programs in 2004-05 in five states: Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia. They compared achievement scores of children who just completed the preschool program with those who were just about to enter.

They found that children’s average vocabulary scores grew 8 percent during the pre-K year, which translates to about four months of progress. In mathematics, children’s scores on such tasks as simple addition and subtraction, telling time, and counting money grew an average of 13 percent.

Strong links to children’s ability to understand “print concepts,” such as making letter-sound associations, were also found. Children’s average scores rose 39 percent in that area. No significant effects, however, were found on measures of phonological awareness, which is identifying the sounds that make up words.

“We really think the findings are quite remarkable,” said W. Steven Barnett, the director of the institute and the lead author of the report. “Preschool by itself is not going to close the entire gap with middle-class kids, but it does make up some of the difference.”

The study, which was released here last week during the annual meeting of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, bolsters the argument for opening preschool programs to all children instead of targeting services to those from disadvantaged households, the researchers say.

Statewide Gains

While Mr. Barnett said the findings suggest that disadvantaged children stand to benefit more from attending well-implemented state pre-K programs than their peers from more affluent families, the results “contradict the view that middle-class kids don’t gain” at all.

Establishing universal state- financed preschool programs throughout the country is a top priority of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based philanthropy that established NIEER in 2001. (Pew also provides funding to Education Week.)

In addition, the institute received funding for the study from the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which has also supported efforts to make preschool available to all children in Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

While the NIEER research reaches conclusions similar to those of other research into state pre-K programs, its new study is important, Mr. Barnett said, because many observers still argue that while model early-childhood-education programs can produce significant and lasting gains, states are unable to replicate such results on a large scale.

The five programs featured in the study “didn’t do it in one little place—they did it across the state,” he said.

Another outcome of the research, Mr. Barnett said, is highlighting “what would happen if states did it right.” The programs in the five states studied, he added, are atypical of most state-financed preschool programs because they require almost all pre-K teachers in the programs to have a teaching certificate and a bachelor’s degree.

But the sites that took part in the study might also be atypical of the rest in their states. Of the 1,937 classrooms randomly selected, roughly a third opted not to participate in the research.

“One wonders about the potential differences in population, program quality, et cetera between that group and those that agreed to participate,” Margaret Bridges, a principal research scientist at Policy Analysis for California Education, based at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an e-mail to Education Week.

Ms. Bridges is among a small number of experts who remain skeptical about the benefits of universal preschool and maintain that limited public money should be targeted to the children who are most likely to benefit from preschool and whose parents are the least likely to afford private programs.

Ms. Bridges was a co-author of a research paper, released just last month, showing that children from high-income families who attended center-based preschool programs exhibited poor social skills. (“Studies Find Payoff, Drawbacks Persist for Pupils in Preschool and Child Care,” Nov. 2, 2005.) “It seems that most people agree that preschool has positive (if not short-lived) cognitive effects, but this social-developmental piece is what is raising concerns, particularly if we are making programs universal,” Ms. Bridges wrote in the e-mail.

Head Start Comparisons

The authors of the NIEER report also note that the gains for 4-year-olds in the five state pre-K programs were far higher than those produced by the federal Head Start program.

Earlier this year, the National Head Start Impact Study, conducted by Westat, a research group in Rockville, Md., found small to moderate gains in pre-reading, prewriting, and vocabulary skills and almost no gains in early math skills for children in Head Start, which serves disadvantaged preschoolers.

“This difference in outcomes between the two types of programs points to the likely effects of the higher qualifications (and higher compensation) of teachers in state prekindergarten programs compared to Head Start,” Mr. Barnett’s study says.

During a Dec. 1 conference call, he said in states where Head Start providers work with state agencies on public prekindergarten programs, the level of the Head Start programs’ quality is higher.

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