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Focus on Fade-Out: A $26 Million Project to Hash Out How to Make Pre-K Gains Last

It can take years of effort for educators and researchers to identify an intervention that really, truly improves student achievement, so it's a source of universal frustration that even the strongest, most promising effects tend to vanish after a few years.

This week Inside School Research is looking at new research projects trying to understand what causes fade-out in education programs, to rethink how we evaluate the length of a program's benefits, and to identify the types of interventions that may have long-lasting effects for children.

The Institute of Education Sciences today announced more than $26 million in grants to create a network of teams around the country focused on finding ways to stop preschool benefits from fading over the elementary grades. 

"We believe these networks will lead to important advances in early-childhood education," said Thomas Brock, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Research, which is part of IES. "The idea is for the network teams to develop a deeper understanding of problems and solutions surrounding the issue, and then share what they have learned with policymakers and practitioners to improve teaching and learning for all students."  

Six Early-Education Research Sites Tapped

The Early Learning Network grantees will conduct a series of interconnected studies of fade-out of early-education benefits:

  • The first group of studies will analyze interactions among state-, local-, and school-level policies and program decisions and how they affect the ways an intervention plays out in different classrooms and grades.
  • Next, researchers will try to identify factors that seem to change how well classroom practices affect outcomes for children in different types of communities, such as in rural versus urban schools.
  • Finally, the researchers will try to identify whether those factors lead to different effects in the short and long term, as well as whether they affect students' transitions into school or between grades.

"All of the learning that we measure in our academic programs and research, they don't just stem from one experience or one setting," said Susan Sheridan, of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who has a $2 million grant to lead the research network. Most prior longitudinal evaluations that have looked for potential causes of fading benefits have focused on whether a student in a program like Head Start continued to receive support over time, as he or she transitioned from year to year in school, Sheridan noted. "But I think also important and much less studied are the continuities over place or space, across the different learning environments in which a student finds him- or herself," such as after-school activities, friend groups, or a student's home environment, Sheridan said. "One of the tantalizing questions is, how do these environments align, and does that alignment predict outcomes differentially?"

Within the research network, Sheridan also was awarded a $4.5 million grant to study early-learning policies and programs in Nebraska. JoAnn Hsueh, of MDRC, Laura Justice, of the Ohio State University, and Robert Pianta, of the University of Virginia, also received $4.5 million each to study Ohio, Boston, and Fairfax County, Va., public schools, respectively, and Margaret Burchinal, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, received $4 million to study early-education programs in rural North Carolina.

Carol Connor, of the University of California, Irvine, also received $2 million to develop an observation system for studying early-childhood classrooms. 

Persistence Remains a Perennial Puzzle

It makes sense to start with early-childhood education, which has proven particularly nettlesome for educators when it comes to holding onto immediate gains. Benefits found for the federal Head Start program, Tennessee's voluntary prekindergarten, and even the famous Perry Preschool Project all showed significant early academic gains for students that regressed over the early elementary years. Perry Preschool's academic gains dropped by more than half from age 5, shortly after students left the program, to age 8.

Similarly, in a recent evaluation of Tennessee's voluntary pre-K, economist Dale Farran of the Center on Children and Families, and Mark Lipsey, the director of Vanderbilt University's Peabody Research Institute, found that early benefits of the preschool reversed themselves by 3rd grade. The researchers noted that "the virtual ink on our recently released report was barely dry before pre-K advocates were vigorously building a firebreak around these results ...." But following a secondary study bolstering the evidence of fade-out, the researchers hypothesized that school districts may simply not have been following up on the hard-won growth of the students who attended preschool:

"There is some as yet poorly understood interaction between the pre-K experience and the experience the children have in subsequent grades that fails to carry forward the momentum they gained in pre-K. ...Rather than building enthusiasm for learning, confidence in their abilities, and a foundational understanding of literacy and math, the programs may only be teaching children how to behave in school, an enthusiasm that fades with repeated exposure." 

Comprehensive and highly regarded programs such as Perry and the Abecedarian programs followed their students for decades—long enough so that so-called "sleeper" benefits emerged, such as participants having higher high school graduation rates and lower adult crime rates—but it remains difficult to find the path through the fading early results to the later benefits.

"It's really nice that Abecedarian and Perry showed these later-emerging effects on life outcomes, but we don't have a great understanding of why," said Drew Bailey, an assistant education professor studying fade-out at the University of California, Irvine. "Education researchers need to take a little bit more seriously what targets we should be aiming at. We say things like, 'math is important, everyone agrees; it predicts important life outcomes, and therefore, [they focus on] how can we best teach kids math. We go too quickly with that first part. Why did Perry [Preschool] result in important life outcomes? Was it because students knew more math, or their personalities changed, or Perry reduced some risks and improved opportunities at a critical time in their development? It's probably some combination of all that."

Tomorrow we'll look at what we can learn from autopsies of interventions lost, and how it might change the way educators should think of success in evaluating programs.


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