Early Childhood Opinion

Creating the Best Prekindergartens

By Lawrence J. Schweinhart — March 18, 2008 6 min read
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State-funded prekindergarten for 4-year-olds has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, with the number of such programs up by 40 percent over the last five years alone. One factor contributing to the growth is strong evidence that early-childhood experience influences the development of the brain’s architecture. Another is the record of producing beneficial long-term effects and solid returns on investment established by high-quality prekindergarten for children living in low-income families.


The findings come from three major studies of the effects of such programs: the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, begun by David P. Weikart in 1962; the Carolina Abecedarian Project, begun by Craig T. Ramey in 1972; and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers study, conducted by Arthur J. Reynolds since 1985. These longitudinal studies find strong evidence of the positive effects on participants’ intellectual performance in childhood, school achievement in adolescence, placements in regular classes (rather than special education placement or grade retention), high school graduation rate, and adult earnings. They also show fewer teenage births and fewer crimes among participants. Moreover, the economic returns for these programs are from four to 16 times as great as the original investments. This extraordinary economic performance is why leading economists, such as the University of Chicago Nobel laureate James J. Heckman, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, and others, have publicly embraced these programs.

Yet, most recent studies of the federal Head Start program and state-funded prekindergartens have found only modest, short-term effects on children’s literacy and social skills and parents’ behavior, putting into question whether these programs too can have long-term effects or worthwhile returns on investment. It is time we explored the differences that make some prekindergartens highly effective, producing a lasting impact on participants’ lives, while others are not. Five ingredients of the highly effective stand out as definitive, and can serve as rules for how to design such programs:

It is time we explored the differences that make some prekindergartens highly effective, producing a lasting impact on participants’ lives, while others are not.

Include children living in low-income families or otherwise at risk of school failure. Long-term effects have seldom been looked for and have yet to be found for children not in these circumstances, although there are arguments for serving them as well. For example, a recent study by William T. Gormley Jr. of Oklahoma’s state prekindergartens, which are open to all children, found short-term effects on participants’ school achievement that were large enough to promise long-term effects. Prekindergartens open to all children also enjoy a wider political base than a targeted program, and still include the children who are most in need.

Have enough qualified teachers and provide them with ongoing support. Qualified teachers are critical to the success of any educational program, a principle now embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In early-childhood settings, being qualified is taken to mean having a teaching certificate based on a bachelor’s degree in education, child development, or a related field. Because research is constantly informing us about how young children learn and can best be taught, it is also important that early-childhood teachers receive curriculum-based supervision and continuing professional development. Systematic in-service training, in which teachers learn research-based, practical classroom strategies, also helps ensure that young children are having the educational experiences that contribute most to their development.

So that pupils receive sufficient individual attention, highly effective prekindergarten classes have two qualified adults—a teacher and an assistant teacher—for every 16 to 20 4-year-olds. Although having qualified teachers, a low child-to-teacher ratio, and ongoing professional development may cost more, cutting back on these components would threaten program effectiveness as well as the return on investment.

Use a validated, interactive child-development curriculum. Such a curriculum enables children as well as teachers to have a hand in designing their own learning activities. It focuses not just on reading and mathematics, but on all aspects of children’s development—cognitive, language, social, emotional, motivational, artistic, and physical. And it has evidence of its effectiveness. Implementing such a curriculum requires serious interactive training, study, and practice, particularly for teachers who have little experience with this type of education.

Have teachers spend substantial amounts of time with parents, educating them about their children’s development and how they can extend classroom learning experiences into their homes. All the programs in the long-term studies worked with parents. In fact, in the High/Scope Perry Preschool program, teachers spent half their work time engaged in such activities. As child care beyond part-day prekindergarten has become more widespread, parent-outreach efforts also need to include other caregivers, in centers and homes, who spend time daily with enrolled children.

Confirm results through continuous assessment of program quality and children’s development of school readiness. Good curriculum and good assessment go hand in hand. Prekindergartens striving to be highly effective need to replicate the policies and practices of a program found to be highly effective, including the five ingredients listed here. The proof that this is being done lies in program-implementation assessment, a system for measuring how well a program carries out administrative and teaching standards. A program assessor uses standard protocols to observe classrooms and the school, and to interview teachers and others about the various aspects of program quality. The results can then be used for program improvement.

For the concept of school readiness to contribute to developing highly effective prekindergartens, it must serve as the mediator between prekindergarten and its long-term effects.

Systematic observation and testing measure prekindergarten children’s development of school readiness. With an interactive child-development curriculum, systematic observation fits better than testing, because it records children’s usual behavior rather than requiring them to respond on cue in a particular time and place. Program administrators and teachers who know how children are doing on such assessments will be able to use this information to monitor the children’s progress and attune their teaching to it.

Nearly two decades ago, the National Education Goals Panel defined “school readiness” as encompassing not only reading and mathematics, but also other aspects of general knowledge and cognition, physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional development, approaches to learning, and language development. This broad definition also appears in the Head Start Child Outcomes Framework and Canada’s Early Development Instrument, an effort in that country and others to assess children’s school readiness by having kindergarten teachers rate them on 120 items.

For the concept of school readiness to contribute to developing highly effective prekindergartens, it must serve as the mediator between prekindergarten and its long-term effects. The validity of a school-readiness measure depends on its sensitivity to the effects of prekindergarten and its ability to predict later effects on school achievement and other important life outcomes. In the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, the program was found to have improved children’s intellectual performance and their commitment to schooling, which in turn led to improvements in school achievement, educational attainment, and adult earnings, and to reduced criminal offenses. So in this study, school readiness linking prekindergarten experience and later effects involved motivation as well as intellectual performance.

School readiness so defined could serve as a useful benchmark of the success of today’s prekindergartens, guiding them toward both positive long-term effects and good returns on investment.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Creating the Best Prekindergartens


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