Early Childhood

Is Preschool ‘Fade Out’ Inevitable? Two Studies Zero In on the Issue

By Christina A. Samuels — April 25, 2018 4 min read
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Plenty of early-childhood studies have shown that children who attend preschool start kindergarten with a measurable advantage of 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 the time they reach 3rd grade, the students often are academically indistiguishable 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.

Testing Whether Good Schools Sustain Preschool Gains

The first study looked at 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 kindergarten in 2010.

The researchers were looking at several outcomes, but one hypothesis they wanted to test was whether a good elementary school helped the preschool boost last longer. Many advocates have argued that preschool 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, titled “Preschool and Children’s Outcomes in Elementary School: Have Patterns Changed Nationwide Between 1998 and 2010?” The study 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.”

Using these data sets, Bassok and her co-authors controlled for measures that are associated with elementary school quality. For example, these data sets tracked whether students were enrolled in schools that had robust 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 students to advanced math and reading content, and whether the kindergartners were in classrooms of fewer than 20 students.

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

“If kids are going to benefit in a profound, long-lasting way, we have to focus less on these crude characteristics,” Bassok said. “If you think of preschool as this black box of stuff that is supposed to magically change kids’ lives, that’s unlikely to give you the results you want.”

What does matter, Bassok says, 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 try to focus on the actual experiences that kids have,” she said.

Preschool Gains Can Last In Specific Circumstances

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 study 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.

To develop these findings, 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 six months old. The children’s classroom quality was also assessed in 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades.

One interesting finding was that children who attended high-quality child care were not more likely to move into elementary classrooms deemed to be of high-quality. And, being in a high-quality elementary school classroom in early grades did not guarantee a high-quality experience in later grades.

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

All told, the findings point to the importance of cumulative effects, Ansari said. Good child care, good preschool, and good elementary school experiences all add up, he said—the challenge is how to ensure that happens. In contrast to the nationally-represenative sample of children in the first study, these children were primarily white and from affluent families. And even they experienced some lower-quality care and education, Ansari notes. It’s much harder for less-affluent families to get the cumulative benefits, he said.

“This basic communication across systems"—child care, preschool and elementary—"is the really big issue were’re going to have to grapple with,” Ansari said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.