Opinion
Early Childhood Opinion

The Preschool Fade-Out Effect Is Not Inevitable

By Deborah Stipek — March 17, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Many policymakers tout universal preschool as a strategy for reducing the achievement gap that exists before children begin school, and for preparing all children for the increased academic rigor of kindergarten. Some studies have shown long-term benefits of preschool, but many find that by about 3rd grade, the advantage children who attended preschool had over children who did not has disappeared—the so-called “fade out” effect. Studies that point to fade-out disappoint policymakers who want to see long-term returns on resources devoted to early-childhood education.

Is fade-out inevitable? No. Studies have shown definitively that investment in preschool can yield sustained effects and significant social and economic returns. But fade-out is common and remains a persistent reminder that simply providing preschool to low-income children is not sufficient to achieve long-term benefits.

The Preschool Fade-Out Effect Is Not Inevitable: To make good on preschool investments, we need to look at what comes next, writes Stanford’s Deborah Stipek.

If we want to sustain the effects of preschool, we need to look at what happens after children enter school. Clearly, the quality of schooling they receive in the early elementary grades matters. Poor instruction can undo the effects of high-quality preschool experiences. But instruction has to be more than good to sustain preschool effects; it has to build strategically on the gains made in preschool. Currently, instruction in the early elementary grades is typically not well aligned with—and therefore does not make effective use of—the advantages high-quality preschool confers. Recent analyses of national data by Vanderbilt University’s Mimi Engel and her colleagues, for example, indicate that much of the math instruction children receive in kindergarten repeats material they have already mastered before entering kindergarten. Repetition gives the children who did not have the benefit of preschool an opportunity to catch up, but it does not build on the gains children made in preschool, and thus does not make good on the preschool investment.

To sustain the gains of preschool, kindergarten teachers need to know the kinds of skills children bring to their class. They must then adjust their curriculum and instructional plan to move each child to the next step in his or her learning trajectory. This requires careful assessments of students’ skills at the beginning of the academic year and support for teachers to help them understand the implications of those assessments for their teaching. The former is increasingly common; the latter is just as important, but rare.

Implementing a continuous, if not uniform, curriculum in preschool and the early elementary grades can help. But even a consistent curriculum does not guarantee that children will experience a seamless transition in which new instruction builds on what they previously learned.

Bad instruction can undo the effects of high-quality preschool experiences.

Learning scientists have also shown that learning is sustained and deepened when students make connections between constructs and topics and when they are given opportunities to apply their skills in novel contexts. To do this, teachers need to know what children learned in the previous grade and in what context.

Opportunities for sustaining the social-emotional benefits of preschool are also often lost and thus contribute to fade-out. The social dimension of children’s development is typically emphasized in preschool, but because K-12 accountability systems in most states do not currently include social-emotional skills, these skills are not given much attention beyond preschool. As a consequence, elementary school teachers do not take advantage of and build on the social-emotional gains made in high-quality preschool. These skills are not just important for relationships with peers and teachers; they also play a central role in learning. Impulse control, for example, is highly correlated with academic skills. A failure to build on the progress in self-regulation and other social skills made in preschool is a missed opportunity to maximize student learning in the early elementary grades.

In addition to curricular continuity, continuity in parent involvement can affect children’s learning. Parents play a significant role in the preschool programs that have produced the best-documented sustained effects on children, such as the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, the Perry Preschool Project, and the Child-Parent Centers in Chicago. These programs encouraged parents to be involved in their children’s education and they gave parents instruction and tools to do so. Most elementary schools invest much less in parents. As a result, parent involvement, which is known to have considerable impact on children’s learning, is not sustained. Again, an important benefit of quality preschool is lost.

Schools often make efforts to ease the transition from preschool to kindergarten, but those efforts typically focus on readying parents and children for change, not on making adjustments in kindergarten to capitalize on the gains children made in preschool.

There are concrete steps policymakers and elementary school administrators can take to ensure the long-term benefits of children’s preschool experience: They should align the assessments given in preschool and the early elementary grades to track children’s progress on learning trajectories across the grades. At the school level, they should give teachers time and opportunities to become familiar with expectations and content in the preceding and subsequent grades. They should also give teachers opportunities to learn how to adjust instruction for children who enter with varying levels of skills so that all children, at whatever level, can move on to the next level.

There are many ways to help sustain the effects of preschool, including ensuring high-quality programs and offering other supports that children and families need for children to perform well in school. But if we want our investment in preschool to pay off, we cannot ignore what comes after. We need to make sure that what follows preschool takes good advantage of the gains achieved.

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Early Childhood EdReports Expands Curriculum Reviews to Pre-K
Non-profit EdReports will review pre-K curricula to gauge its alignment with research on early learning.
2 min read
Boy raises his hand to answer a question in a classroom; he is sitting on the floor with other kids and the teacher is sitting in front of the class.
iStock / Getty Images Plus
Early Childhood The State of Teaching Young Kids Are Struggling With Skills Like Listening, Sharing, and Using Scissors
Teachers say basic skills and tasks are more challenging for young students now than they were five years ago.
5 min read
Young girl using scissors in classroom.
E+ / Getty
Early Childhood Without New Money, Biden Admin. Urges States to Use Existing Funds to Expand Preschool
There's no new infusion of federal funds for preschool, so the Biden administration is pointing out funding sources that are already there.
4 min read
Close cropped photo of a young child putting silver coins in a pink piggy bank.
iStock/Getty
Early Childhood Preschool Studies Show Lagging Results. Why?
Researchers try to figure out why modern preschool programs are less effective than the landmark projects in the 1960s and 70s.
7 min read
Black female teacher and group of kids coloring during art class at preschool.
iStock / Getty Images Plus