School & District Management

Quality Is Crucial to Sustaining Benefits of Pre-K, Studies Stress

By Christina A. Samuels — May 01, 2018 3 min read
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Plenty of early-childhood studies have shown that children who attend preschool start kindergarten with a measurable advantage over their peers who were not enrolled.

But often, those same studies show that the academic progress of those two groups of children start to converge as the children move through school. By 3rd grade, the students often are academically indistinguishable from one another.

Two new studies have tackled the topic of early education “fadeout.” And though they use different data sets, the researchers point to similar conclusions: For positive benefits to last, early-childhood programs have to be of high quality and can’t be seen as a one-shot inoculation that will sustain children throughout their academic careers.

The first study examines two large samples of students. One group of about 12,450 children started kindergarten in 1998, and the other group, made up of around 11,000 children, started in 2010.

One hypothesis was whether a good elementary school helped the preschool boost last longer. Many advocates have argued that fadeout occurs because children enroll in elementary schools that aren’t prepared to sustain their academic gains.

“That’s a very compelling premise, and it makes some intuitive sense,” said Daphna Bassok, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia and the lead author of the study, “Preschool and Children’s Outcomes in Elementary School: Have Patterns Changed Nationwide Between 1998 and 2010?” It was published April 17 in the journal Child Development.

But, she added, “It’s something we’ve latched onto without a ton of rigorous empirical support.”

Tracking the Impact

Using these data sets, Bassok and her co-authors controlled for measures that are associated with elementary school quality. For example, the data sets tracked whether students were enrolled in schools that had transition practices between preschool and kindergarten, such as parent orientations and teacher visits to students’ homes. The researchers also measured whether schools reported exposing kindergarten pupils to advanced-math and -reading content and whether the kindergartners were in classrooms of fewer than 20 children.

But none of those elementary-program characteristics made a difference in how quickly the benefits of preschool faded.

What does seem to matter, Bassok said, is serious and sustained attention to preschool curriculum and to professional development of teachers.

“To guarantee a high-quality learning environment for kids, we have to try to focus on the actual experiences that kids have,” she said.

The second study also tracked the early-childhood experiences of a group of children. But rather than looking only at preschool, researchers examined the outcomes of children who were in high-quality child-care and early-learning environments from birth to 5th grade. And, instead of using proxies for high quality as the other study did, this one relied on direct assessments of quality made by trained observers who witnessed the child-teacher interactions.

The authors found that the positive benefits of good child care and preschool were sustained through adolescence—as long as the children attended high-quality elementary classes as well. When the elementary classrooms were of observably lower quality, the benefits of the early-childhood boost again faded out.

“To elevate children’s experiences takes more of an investment in the whole early-childhood system,” said Arya Ansari, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia and the lead author of “Variations in the Long-Term Benefits of Child Care: The Role of Classroom Quality in Elementary School.” The study was published April 5 in the journal Developmental Psychology.

Ansari examined the outcomes of a group of about 1,300 children in 10 cities who were born in 1991 and have been tracked through 9th grade. Observers periodically measured adult-child interactions with the children starting when they were 6 months old. The children’s classroom quality was also assessed in 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades.

Only a small fraction of the children studied had high-quality experiences all the way from infancy though elementary school. But the children who had that long-term, high-quality education performed measurably better on tests of literacy and math compared with children whose elementary school classrooms were of moderate or poor quality.

All told, the findings point to the importance of cumulative effects, Ansari said. “This basic communication across systems"—child care, preschool, and elementary—"is the really big issue we’re going to have to grapple with,” Ansari said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2018 edition of Education Week as Quality Crucial to Sustained Pre-K Benefits, Studies Stress

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