Early Childhood What the Research Says

A New Study Shows How Schools Can Maximize Full-Day Pre-K’s Benefits

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 28, 2023 6 min read
Teacher Honi Allen, right, supervises as children test how far they can jump at the St. John's Preschool in American Falls, Idaho, on Sept. 28, 2023.
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A new look at Chicago’s longstanding, intensive preschool program highlights how elementary school leaders can help sustain the benefits students get from early education.

A study published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week finds that low-income students who participated in district-run, full-day preschool programs aligned with—and located in or near—elementary schools performed significantly better than students in school-based half-day preschool or less in reading and math by the end of 3rd grade. The full-day preschool students also showed better social-emotional development and were nearly three times less likely to repeat a grade during that time.

The benefits of preschool were greatest for students in schools where the principal and preschool teachers and family liaisons collaborated closely to align curriculum, teacher training, and family supports between preschool and primary grades.

“Obviously [the length of] instructional times are making a difference, but I think without the leadership quality, you wouldn’t see these differences,” said Arthur Reynolds, child development professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the lead author of the study. “There’s a leadership structure that’s really creating a school climate for strong relationships among all key stakeholders: children, families, teachers, [and] the principal.”

The findings come at a time when, according to Urban Institute research, more than 60 percent of public elementary schools now have an attached preschool, but most states and districts provide little guidance for principals on how to align the early-childhood classes with the primary grades.

“Research shows us principals take one or two paths,” said Michael Little, an assistant professor in early childhood education policy at North Carolina State University, who studies preschool-elementary alignment issues but was not involved in the Chicago study. “They can either see the pre-K program as simply renting space in the building, and engagement is very, very low. Or in some cases, the principal can really see the value of the program for the broader school environment and really integrate the school. In that case, [locating preschools in elementary schools] presents an opportunity for a really rich level of engagement.”

Elementary and secondary teachers often think primarily of play in preschool. Lori Zaimi, the principal of Helen C. Peirce School of International Studies, which includes one of the Chicago centers, said school leaders and teams need to “go in [preschool classrooms] and observe—What does classroom culture look like? What does, communicating with students look like? What does questioning and discussion look like?—and then identify areas of strength and opportunities for growth from that.

“It’s important for principals to understand and ... start to tell those stories about what’s happening in K-3 and how pre-K helps to get [students] to their goal,” she said.

Intensive model

Chicago’s 2012 expansion of the Child-Parent Education Program has been one of the most intensive preschool alignment programs in the country. The child-parent centers, operating for more than 50 years, provide coordinated education, health, and family services for children in preschool through 3rd grade. Most of these centers are located on or next to elementary school campuses.

These school-sited preschools include health, family, and social services for students, small classes of 16-18 students, a leadership team with a head teacher and two family coordinators, curriculum aligned with elementary grades, and ongoing professional development for preschool teachers, who are paid at the same scale as their elementary counterparts.

Researchers led by Reynolds tracked the progress of nearly 1,000 low-income 3- and 4-year-olds at 11 Chicago schools that offered both half-day and full-day on-site preschool programs. About 70 percent of students who started in the preschools matriculated into their associated elementary schools.

By the end of 3rd grade, more than 38 percent of students who had attended full-day preschool read proficiently on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a widely used test. That was nearly 13 percentage points more than students who had attended half-day programs in preschool. In math, 25 percent of full-day students and 17 percent of part-day students performed proficiently in 3rd grade. To put that into context, only about 1 in 5 of all Chicago 3rd graders read and do math on grade level, with performance for low-income students significantly lower. While the majority of students who attended full- or part-day preschool still perform below grade level, they outperformed their peers.

A little more than 3 percent of students who had participated in the full-day preschool program had been held back by the end of 3rd grade, compared with 9.5 percent of 3rd graders who had participated in half-day preschool.

Coordinated leadership crucial

In the JAMA study, 40 percent of students who attended full-day preschool in schools with high-quality implementation—including strong preschool leadership teams and teacher training—read proficiently by the end of grade 3. That’s 13 percentage points higher than the reading proficiency rates for students in less well-implemented full-day preschool programs.

Five years ago, the preschool center at Edmund Burke Elementary School seemed like another school entirely. Elementary teachers didn’t know their preschool colleagues’ names or the areas where their youngest students needed more support.

“That was definitely a disservice to kids, and it defeated the power that we could have if we did a better job of working together,” said Burke Principal Lauren Norwood.

Today, teachers at the Burke Child-Parent Center have common professional development and planning time with elementary teachers and meet quarterly to review student data and curriculum across grades.

Each year, kindergarten and preschool teachers create a list of the 10 most-needed skills to ease the transition for rising preschoolers—things like writing their first and last names and generating rhymes for a given word. “If kids aren’t able to do those things, then they spend more time than necessary in kindergarten trying to master” the skills, Norwood said. “So this has been very successful for us in ... making sure that kids have nailed it before they move on to kindergarten.”

“Our kids are just with it,” Norwood said. “They are happy about school, not getting adjusted to a new environment because they know it.”

However, experts say school leaders, most of whom are not certified in early childhood education, need more training in how to incorporate early grades.

In a separate survey of principals in North Carolina, Little, the North Carolina State expert, found they “overwhelmingly support preschool in concept. ... However, when we start to ask about the specific practices that they engage in and their knowledge, things start to fall off.”

For example, only about 35 percent of elementary principals reported including pre-K teachers in vertical professional learning community teams. And only 10 percent of principals were familiar with North Carolina’s early learning and development standards, intended to be used to evaluate preschool teachers and align learning goals.

Norwood said school leaders who aren’t endorsed in early childhood themselves can often, “let the early childhood-endorsed people do their thing, and I’m going to manage the other kids.”

“Principals definitely need to jump in the sandbox and not feel as if, because you are not endorsed in early childhood, that you may be less able to really make change in those departments,” she added.

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