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What Does Science Tell Us About Prekindergarten?

In 2013, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that high-quality preschool produced a return of $7 for every $1 invested.

Two years later, researchers studying the Tennessee prekindergarten program found that the effects of that program appeared to fade by 3rd grade.

Which assessment should policy makers follow? Is early-education the key to future success, or has its effectiveness been overblown? 

Earlier this week, a group of  early-childhood researchers who are well-known in the field attempted to answer that question. In "Puzzling It Out: The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects,"  they offered a nuanced take on the value of prekindergarten through six "consensus statements." 

According to the researchers, many different types of programs leave children more ready for school at the end of their prekindergarten year than other children who did not attend such programs. But prekindergarten alone cannot sustain those learning gains, they agree—strong elementary school programs are also important.

The consensus statements: 

  • Studies of different groups of preschoolers often find greater improvement in learning at the end of the pre-K year for economically disadvantaged children and dual-language learners than for more advantaged and English-proficient children.

  • Pre-K programs are not all equally effective. Several effectiveness factors may be at work in the most successful programs. One such factor supporting early learning is a well-implemented, evidence-based curriculum. Coaching for teachers, as well as efforts to promote orderly but active classrooms, may also be helpful.

  • Children's early-learning trajectories depend on the quality of their learning experiences not only before and during their pre-K year, but also following the pre-K year. Classroom experiences early in elementary school can serve as charging stations for sustaining and amplifying pre-K learning gains. One good bet for powering up later learning is elementary school classrooms that provide individualization and differentiation in instructional content and strategies.

  • Convincing evidence shows that children attending a diverse array of state and school district pre-K programs are more ready for school at the end of their pre-K year than children who do not attend pre-K. Improvements in academic areas such as literacy and numeracy are most common; the smaller number of studies of social-emotional and self-regulatory development generally show more modest improvements in those areas.

  • Convincing evidence on the longer-term impacts of scaled-up pre-K programs on academic outcomes and school progress is sparse, precluding broad conclusions. The evidence that does exist often shows that pre-K-induced improvements in learning are detectable during elementary school, but studies also reveal null or negative longer-term impacts for some programs.

  • States have displayed considerable ingenuity in designing and implementing their pre-K programs. Ongoing innovation and evaluation are needed during and after pre-K to ensure continued improvement in creating and sustaining children's learning gains. Research-practice partnerships are a promising way of achieving this goal. These kinds of efforts are needed to generate more complete and reliable evidence on effectiveness factors in pre-K and elementary school that generate long-run impacts.

The researchers include heavy-hitters in the field of early-childhood education: Deborah A. Phillips, Mark W. Lipsey, Kenneth A. Dodge, Ron Haskins, Daphna Bassock, Margaret R. Burchinal, Greg J. Duncan, Mark Dynarski, Katherine A. Magnuson, and Christina Weiland. Many of these experts have conducted their own research on early learning and prekindergarten. They shared their conclusions at a panel earlier this week, excerpted in the embedded video: 

In addition to the consensus statement, a longer document offers a deeper dive into other important early-childhood policy issues: characteristics of prekindergarten programs that produce positive outcomes, the importance of prekindergarten curricula, and the benefits of universal prekindergarten compared to programs that are targeted at children at risk of academic struggles. 

The consensus work was sponsored by the Brookings Foundation, with funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. Kimberly Brenneman, the education program officer at Heising-Simons, said one hope is that the document will serve as a baseline of knowledge on which future research can be measured. Early-childhood research uses a variety of methodologies to measure a variety of different programs, so developing a common understanding is helpful, she said. 

Brenneman said that another important takeway is to consider early-childhood education as "continuous and cumulative." What happens after prekindergarten is important, and can be bolstered by having prekindergarten teachers working together with teachers of early grades, so that students can make a seamless transition to elementary school. "We cannot expect one year of a child's school to inoculate them for life," she said.


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