Evidence Base for Preschool: New Findings

FCD-coverA new study out this month sheds light on the evidence base for preschool education.

The report, financed by the Foundation for Child Development and produced in collaboration with the society for Research in Child Development, concludes that high-quality preschool programs are “the most cost-effective educational interventions” for society as a whole.  That’s pretty big talk, and one that may be met with skepticism by those not versed in the research literature.  The researchers acknowledge that the link between preschool attendance and test scores dissipates by 3rd grade, but note that preschool has many other well-documented long-term effects, such as increased earnings and high school graduation rates.  Among the bullet points are that an extra year of preschool produces benefits; that preschool has a higher impact on academic growth than socio-emotional development, and that quality matters – especially those aspects of quality tied to processes like stimulating interactions  (Structural components of quality, such as group sizes or staff qualifications, help produce environments in which “process” quality can occur but do not, in and of themselves, drive child outcomes).

The FCD study comes on the heels of some other recent research, including last March’s follow-up study to the Abbott pre-K program, which showed that kids in poor New Jersey communities who participated in pre-K made significant gains that persisted through fourth and fifth grades – an effect equivalent to up to 40 percent of the achievement gap between minority and white students for those who were in the program for two years.

The recent studies have received some generally favorable media buzz, such as this week’s commentary in the New York Times.   One of the reigning contrarians is – not surprisingly – the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, which contests the very claim that preschool has educational benefits, citing findings from Head Start and the Perry Preschool Program indicating hat gains tends to taper out by 3r grade.  This is a valid criticism – and one that should be cause for attention for any Head Start grantee – but these qualifications are far outweighed by the much larger body of research which, on balance, creates a compelling picture of the value of preschool investments. (See also last March’s WSJ piece, in which the effectiveness of Oklahoma and Georgia’s pre-K programs are rated as “failures” based on statewide outcomes – the classic correlation-does-not-imply-causation pitfall that a major American newspaper ought to be ashamed of).

The problem with these rhetorical carpet-bombs is that they put advocates on the defensive, making it harder to acknowledge the real nuances and issues that exist in the pre-K world (such as the tendency of test scores to taper off by 3rd grade just one of them and wide variations in quality level, to name a few).  In my read, the FCD report does a good job of balancing the impressive results from many preschool studies with some important qualifications.

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