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Beyond Silver Bullets: Pre-k Effectiveness and PK-3

July 16, 2008 - 12:00pm

There's a substantial body of evidence documenting the short term benefits of pre-k programs. Children who attend quality pre-k programs enter kindergarten with stronger literacy, math, and social skills than similar peers who did not attend pre-k. There's very little disputing this, even among individuals and organizations that oppose public investment in pre-k programs.

Short-term pre-k impacts are important, but policymakers and parents who invest in pre-k ultimately care most about the long-term impacts these investments have on children's outcomes. That's a more complicated question, as a back and forth I've been having with the Cato Institute's Adam Schaeffer illustrates.

Let's get this out of the way first: There is now extensive evidence for some long-term benefits from pre-k programs. Several studies that conduct medium- to long-term follow up on participants in pre-k programs (inlcuding publicly funded programs such as Head Start) find evidence that pre-k participation reduces grade retention and special education placements. That in itself can generate savings for taxpayers, not to mention lasting personal benefits for individual children who avoid retention or special education placement. Some longer term studies, of which there are fewer, also find positive impacts on high school graduation rates.

In a world where schools and educational interventions are increasingly judged based on student achievement results--test scores--and where individuals increasingly need strong academic skills to participate in the workforce, higher education, and mainstream society--that's not enough, though. Unfortunately, the very real achievement gains students experience in pre-k too often fade out by the end of third grade.

That shouldn't surprise anyone. Pre-k doesn't exist in a vaccum. Quality pre-k programs can help narrow the significant achievement gaps that exist for low-income and racial/ethnic minority students at school entry, and they can help place students on a solid foundation heading into kindergarten. But the schools children attend after pre-k have to build on that foundation in order for children to maintain early learning gains. Children learn by progressively building new skills and knowledge on top of the skills and knoweldge they already possess. It's an ongoing process. If schools aren't effective in helping students acquire new skills and knoweldge, then even children who went to the best pre-k programs are going to slip behind. That's why New America's early education work focuses on quality pre-k as part of a larger education reform agenda that simultaneously seeks to improve public education at the elementary level and beyond.

Evidence from the Chicago Child Parent Centers (CPC) program illustrates the importance of continuing intervention beyond pre-k into the early elementary years in order to produce lasting educational impacts. The CPC study is a quasi-experimental, longitudinal study that followed a cohort of more than 1,500 children attending kindergarten in Chicago in 1985. Some children in this sample had benefitted from early education interventions carried out by Chicago's Child Parent Centers, a program that provided quality pre-k, full-day kindergarten, and ongoing educational supports (reduced class size, parent involvement activities, enriched classroom environments) through third grade. Other children in the sample did not, allowing resarchers to study the CPCs' impact. The CPC study is particularly valuable because it focuses on the impacts of a large-scale, publicly funded early education program. In other words, CPC isn't a pie-in-the-sky "model program," but a real world model that states could reasonably seek to replicate in their pre-k and school reform efforts.

Research demonstrating CPC's positive long-term impacts on high school completion, grade retention, special education placement, and crime is well-known. Researchers have also used CPC data to separately compute the impacts of the program's pre-k and elementary support components. (This analysis was possible because some students in the sample received only pre-k services, but not elementary interventions; some received elementary interventions but not pre-k; some received both; and some received neither).

This research finds positive impacts for both students who participated in pre-k only and those who participated in elementary interventions only. As the chart below shows, participating in just the pre-k program had significant positive impacts on high school completion and also reduced special education placements and grade retention. In other words, the CPC pre-k intervention had some positive impacts even when children didn't receive sustained elementary supports. But the greatest benefits were for youngsters who participated in both the pre-k and the school-age interventions. Particularly important, students who participated in the full intervention had higher test scores at age 17--something that wasn't true for the other groups.




(relative to comparison group)

Benefit to Society per $ Invested[1]

Preschool only

· Increased high school completion

· Reduced special education placement

· Reduced grade retention


School-age only

· Reduced grade retention and special education placements


Preschool and school age

· Reduced grade retention and special education placements

· Higher achievement test scores (age 17)



[1] Excludes benefits to individual program participants, such as higher earnings.

Research addressing the "fade out" phenomenon in Head Start also validates the importance of elementary school quality in mediating long-term pre-k impacts. Children who participate in Head Start programs make significant learning gains, relative to controls, over the course of their Head Start participation, and enter Head Start with stronger language, literacy, math, and social skills than non-participating peers. But many of these academic benefits appear to disappear by the time children reach third grade. Several researchers have sought to understand why this fade out happens.

Janet Currie and Duncan Thomas demonstrate that the phenomenon of "fade out" for Head Start alumni occurs at least in part because black children who participate in Head Start go on to attend low-performing public schools than other black children, with the result that they lose many of the learning gains they made in Head Start. Currie and Thomas did not find the same evidence Head Start fade out among white Head Start graduates, who did not attend poorer quality schools than their non-participating white peers. Similarly, Valerie Lee and Susanna Loeb have found evidence that children who attended Head Start programs go on to attend poorer quality schools in the middle grades than their non-Head Start peers. These studies illustrate why narrowly focused pre-k advocacy is not likely to achieve its desired results, unless advocates place pre-k in the context of a broader school reform agenda.

In a post earlier this week, Schaeffer derided pre-k advocates who view pre-k as a silver bullet, writing: "Preschool activists kneel before a holy trinity of early-intervention programs that supposedly prove preschool is our educational, nay . . . our societal savior."

That's a little harsher than we'd put it, but Schaeffer is right to question claims that pre-k is a silver bullet. That doesn't make him right, though, to dismiss the benefits of pre-k entirely. High-quality pre-k does have demonstrated, substantial short term benefits, which can become long-term benefits when integrated with high-quality elementary programs that sustain early learning gains. And, Schaeffer is most definitely wrong, given our commitment to pre-k as one part of a broader school reform agenda, to lump me in with the silver bullet crew.


Teaching at urban middle

Teaching at urban middle schools made it quite clear to me that going to a poor elementary school can do serious damage, no matter what kind of pre-K a student had. Many of my sixth and seventh graders read on a second- or third-grade level. Can we blame that on their lack of pre-K? I doubt it. Much more likely: they were not taught to read effectively (zero phonics instruction) in lower elementary school.

Zero phonics instruction

I have taught elementary school for 10 years (as a second career). Phonics is definitely part of reading instruction, per district curriculum (California).

You make, I think, a hasty conclusion!

Could there be any other reason for the poor reading skills, or are you convinced of your position?

In New York City, where I

In New York City, where I was teaching, there's been a big political back-and-forth about teaching phonics. Teacher's College at Columbia rules the day, and they teach a workshop model that encourages children to choose their own books. It's nice, but it wasn't nearly enough for my kids, who did not know what I meant when I prompted them to "sound out" a word. When they were faced with longer 6th grade level words, they guessed or gave up. I think there's supposed to be some sort of phonics in addition to the workshop model. I asked many people for phonics resources - my assistant principal, my city-sponsored mentor, etc. - and no one really had anything to give me. It's just not taught in a concerted way. I ended up reading my mom's old phonics books from when she taught in the '70s, and teaching my kids from there.

Of course, their elementary classrooms could have simply been chaotic, or other things, but I was blown away by how little my kids knew about sounding out words.

Phonics not taught in NYC schools?

My K teacher daughter/TFA corps member has large doses of phonics she must teach in the curriculum used in her NYC school (McMillan Mcgraw Hill Treasures).