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New Study Touts Gains From Academic Preschools

A new study finds that preschools that focus on academics provide substantial gains to black students from low-income families, as well as benefits to students from middle-class families.

The study entitled, "Do academic preschools yield stronger benefits? Cognitive emphasis, dosage and early learning," was published last week by the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. It found gains for students after attending an academic-oriented preschool for just nine months.

"We found that the average kid in America probably gains about six to eight weeks in terms of cognitive growth from these academic-oriented pre-Ks, but the average African-American youngster gains about four months in these academically intense classrooms," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, who directed the research.

The study defined an academic-oriented preschool as one where teachers "focus time on classroom activities that foster oral language, preliteracy, and math skills." The researchers depended on reports from teachers on how they spend their time in the classroom to make this determination.

"It's not standing up giving a Power Point on phonics," said Fuller. "It's the inclusion or embeddedness of rich language, print materials, and math concepts."

Fuller stressed that this is not about academic-based preschools versus play-based programs. He said he wanted people "to think beyond this dichotomy" and noted that teachers can use things like games to teach academic concepts.

"These could be playful activities, but they do have instructional intensity," said Fuller. "There's a mindfulness in the head and the heart of the teacher to relay rich language or to foster development of math concepts."

Time Spent in Preschool

The researchers followed a nationally representative sample of 6,150 children born in 2001 from birth to age 5 and found that the benefits of attending a preschool that focused on academics carried on through kindergarten. The children were assessed at ages 2, 4, and 5.

The study also concluded that the amount of time spent in preschool was important. Students who began attending preschool between the ages of 2 and 3 received more benefits than children who starting attending at age 4. It also found that the amount of time spent in preschool each week mattered.

Black children received substantial benefits from attending a full-day program, while white students received the same benefits from a half-day program. The study classified a full-day program as one that met for at least 20 hours per week.

The study found that black students and those from the South were more likely to enroll in preschools that focused on academics.  Around 30 percent of the black children in the study attended federal Head Start, which the researchers found to have the most academically oriented programs.

"I suspect that Head Start feels a lot of pressure from Washington to show stronger results, and the way they can show stronger results is to sharpen the academic content of their program," said Fuller.

Areas for More Study

More of the Latino students in the study attended Head Start than black students, but the study didn't find substantial cognitive gains for them. Fuller theorized that this may be due to a lack of bilingual preschool teachers.

And while the study found significant cognitive benefits for black students, those gains did not translate to greater social development skills as determined by their parents.

The study was largely funded by the Spencer Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that supports efforts to investigate ways education can be improved around the world.


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