Is it time to stop asking if preschool “works?”
Two recent analyses of early-childhood programs suggest that the benefits of high-quality preschool and early care are clear enough that it’s appropriate to shift the research agenda to new questions of effectiveness.
Both studies were released Nov. 16., and the , a research organization. New questions for early-childhood program evaluators might be whether program effects are stronger on some groups of children than others, or how early-program effects can be sustained across time.
“That’s the next generation of research,” said Jill S. Cannon, a policy researcher at Rand and an author of one of the recent reports. “It’s now about the implementation and the quality and getting inside that ‘black box’ ” to find out just why some programs work, and how.
Both analyses also note that there needs to be more research done specifically on early-childhood programs that are most common today.
While some decades-old early-childhood programs have shown benefits reaching well into adulthood, some newer preschool programs have found that the early positive benefits fade out for program participants by the time they reach 3rd grade.
Multiple Studies Examined
The analysis published in Educational Researcher examines the effects of more than 60 studies of early-childhood programs. In particular, the researchers were looking for program effects on special education placement, high school graduation rates, and grade retention.
They found that participants in early-childhood programs had an 8.1 percentage-point reduction on special education placement and an 8.3 percentage-point reduction in grade retention compared with their peers. Participants also had an 11.4 percentage-point increase in high school graduation.
“These results suggest that the benefits of early-childhood-education programs do, in fact, persist beyond the preschool year,” said Dana Charles McCoy, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in an email. McCoy was the lead author of the analysis.
“Given how costly retention, special education, and dropout can be for both individuals and societies, our results suggest that investments in high-quality early-childhood-education programming are likely to pay off in the long term,” McCoy said.
But McCoy acknowledged that several of the studies used in the analysis are quite different from today’s preschool.
For example, the researchers included findings from the Perry Preschool project conducted in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s, and the Abecedarian early-childhood program conducted in the 1970s in North Carolina. Both programs were intensive, had a substantial focus on parent involvement and home visiting, and in the case of the Abecedarian program, started when participants were infants.
The new study does include some more up-to-date program evaluations, however, such as newer studies of children attending preschool in some of New Jersey’s poorest urban districts, and children attending a birth-through-5 program in Tulsa, Okla.
“With that said, because we are looking at outcomes that are only observable years—or even decades—after children attend preschool, we can’t necessarily make conclusions about whether the programs that are being implemented today will show benefits like the ones we observe in our study,” McCoy said.
Areas to Research
And there also needs to be more examination of different program impacts. McCoy noted that in the Perry Preschool study, girls who were enrolled drove the improvements in graduation rates and reductions in grade retention. Reductions in criminal activity and increases in later-life income and employment were driven by boys who were enrolled in the program.
With all that said, the early-childhood field is “in agreement that high-quality early education does work, both for supporting children and for supporting working families,” McCoy said.
The Rand paper includes a broad spectrum of early-childhood programs. In addition to preschool, the researchers looked at home-visiting programs, which send trained counselors to homes to help vulnerable families; parent education programs; and government transfers of cash or in-kind benefits, such as vouchers for food, child care or health care, provided directly to families.
Of 115 program evaluations studied, 102 had a positive effect on at least one child outcome, more benefits than could simply be due to chance, the authors say.
What’s more, the variety of programs studied means that policymakers have a choice in where they might want to invest their efforts, said Lynn A. Karoly, a senior economist with Rand and one of the co-authors of the analysis.
Karoly also said there’s room for exploring “what’s going to work for what population.” For example, some home-visiting programs use nurses as the counselors, but research could be conducted to see if similar results can be achieved with other types of trained counselors. For preschool, researchers could dig more deeply into ratios, the effect of teacher education levels, or the type of curriculum used.
“A positive piece of news here is that people are really interested in evaluating their programs in a rigorous way,” Karoly said.
Dale Farran, a professor at Vanderbilt University, has also researched early-childhood programs. She was not involved with the Educational Researcher or Rand papers, but her work on Tennessee’s state-funded preschool program found that children who were enrolled in the program were academically indistinguishable from their peers by 3rd grade.
The Educational Researcher and Rand papers examine very few programs that look like today’s state-run programs, Farran cautioned.
“We must determine the operational elements that will lead to better short- and long-term outcomes for children. The economists who have done these analyses for the most part have never actually visited any existing [early-childhood education] programs, at least for longer than a nice walk-through,” she said. “Espousing pre-K in general is not going to serve poor and vulnerable children very well.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2017 edition of Education Week as New Analyses Boost Claims of Lasting Benefits From Pre-K