Early Childhood Opinion

“If it is a Miracle, any sort of evidence will answer, but if it is a Fact, proof is necessary”

By Sara Mead — January 03, 2011 2 min read
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Recent blog posts on pre-kindergarten by Kevin Carey and myself have generated some questions and comment from individuals who believe Kevin and I are challenging or attempting to dismiss the evidence on the effectiveness of pre-kindergarten programs. Not at all--the body of evidence demonstrating that children can benefit from high-quality pre-kindergarten programs is one of the most robust in education policy.

But I do think the feedback I’ve received, as well as some of the arguments put forward by prominent pre-k advocates, do raise some important issues about how it’s appropriate to think about certain types of evidence in education policy debates, and specifically how it’s appropriate to think about the evidence on the effectiveness of pre-k programs.

As my fellow Ed Week blogger Rick Hess has written previously, there are different types of questions in education policy that we might seek evidence to address. One sort of question involves the efficacy (or lack thereof) of specific interventions and pedagogical strategies: ie, Does a specific early literacy intervention produce improvements in children’s literacy skills? Is one math curriculum more effective than another? Does a specific coaching intervention produce improvements in teacher’s instructional practice? etc. These types of questions are best addressed through randomized controlled trials and other designs that seek to determine whether or not a particular intervention or strategy “works.”

But educational policy debates frequently focus on different types of questions, regarding how different structural arrangements affect educational productivity, quality, or outcomes ie, What happens when we allow different types of organizations other than school districts to operate public schools? What happens when we expand educational choices available to parents? What happens when we compensate teachers based on on-the-job performance, rather than credentials and experience (and what are the pros and cons of different models of doing that?)? These questions can certainly be addressed through empirical research, but they are not really amenable to the same type of “does it work” questions or the associated research designs as used to evaluate specific instructional interventions.

This raises the question: Is publicly funded preschool a specific intervention, or a structural arrangement? How we answer this question shapes how we should talk about research and evidence in pre-k. Tomorrow I’ll write more about how I think we should answer this question.

(Bonus points to anyone who can tell me who the title quote to this post comes from.)

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.