Early Childhood

What Do We Know About Pre-K? That We Should Start Sooner, Says Report

By Christina A. Samuels — April 14, 2016 3 min read
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Perry Preschool. Abecedarian. Chicago Child-Parent Centers. Boston. Tulsa.

For early-childhood advocates, those names—shorthand for some of the most well-known studies of early learning programs—are routinely used to justify expansion of prekindergarten programs.

And that expansion is taking place. More states are using their dollars to either expand preschool programs or launch them.

But an analysis of 10 influential early-childhood studies, including the five mentioned above, points away from prekindergarten as an effective intervention for struggling children, according to a new report from the American Enterprise Institute. Katharine Stevens, AEI’s research fellow focusing on early-childhood education and policy and the report’s lead author, contends that strongest research shows that high-quality programs focusing on infants, toddlers, and families do the most to improve child outcomes— not pouring money into preschool for 4-year-olds.

“Let’s just say that you’re expanding a pre-K program that costs $10,000 a year. What are you getting for your money?” Stevens asked hypothetically in an interview. “What you’re getting is that children entering kindergarten know a few more letters at the beginning of kindergarten than they otherwise would. It seems to me that we would be better off taking our $10,000 and using that to tackle the environments that are shaping kids in the first months of their lives.”

Stevens and co-author Elizabeth English started by asking experts in the field which early-childhood studies they considered to be most important. Perry Preschool is a well-known study that has tracked children from their toddler years to middle-age. Boston and Tulsa, Okla. have been the sites of research in prekindergarten research. The Chicago Child-Parent Center study also tracked participants well into adulthood. And Abecedarian was a study of a high-quality child care program that participants entered as infants and left when they started kindergarten.

The other early-childhood programs included in the report are the Abbott Preschool Program in New Jersey; Georgia’s pre-K program; the Head Start Impact study; a study of the Nurse-Family Partnership, a home-visiting program; and a study of Tennessee’s state-run preschool program.

The report goes into detail on each program, noting that many of them had very different features. For example, Boston, Tulsa and Tennessee, generally look like many state-run pre-K programs. Perry Preschool, however, despite having preschool in the name, offered center-based education as only one of its interventions. A weekly home-visiting component was also an important component. The Nurse-Family Partnership program, in contrast to Perry and to state pre-K programs, had no preschool component. The interventions started with women who were pregnant for the first time and continued until their child turned two.

The report also goes into detail on the strengths and weaknesses of the different research methods used by the scientists who were tracking program outcomes. Randomized control trials, which allow researchers to compare children who enrolled in a program to children who did not, are called the most rigorous method for determining a program’s impact. Other methods have flaws that mean the findings have to be examined closely, the report says:

Research results are often reported as though they are universal truths, rather than findings from a particular study of a particular program in a particular context. Nonexperts--including parents, policymakers, and the general public--often fail to realize the extent to which the reported results are uncertain, shaped by the specific methods that generate them, and speak only to narrowly tailored questions. In other words, while research findings may be presented in black-and-white terms, especially in policy conversations around early childhood, those findings have more gray and less relevance than is often acknowledged.

The most rigorous studies that show long-term positive impacts are Perry Preschool, the Nurse-Family Partnership and Abecedarian, Stevens concludes—and none of those programs looks like today’s average state pre-K. What they do have in common is that the programs worked closely with families, and with very young children.

Stevens says she believes programs for children younger than age 4 have not received the same attention as prekindergarten, because prekindergarten has a built-in set of supporters: local school systems, teachers’ unions, and state superintendents among them.

“There’s a whole set of alliances around adding pre-K in a way that there isn’t around advancing the understanding that child care is a really crucial early-childhood program,” she said.

The analysis also argues that researchers need to focus more on the long-term impact of programs, and should try more innovative research approaches. “Rather than spending tens of billions of dollars to scale up unproven programs, the federal government can contribute most effectively by helping build the knowledge base needed to support future investment,” the report said.

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