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Pre-K, Plus a Little Extra, Can Help Close Math Gaps for Children in Poverty

The benefits of even high-quality preschool programs tend to fade over time, but extracurricular programs in early grades may help boost the good effects of early education after students start school, according to a new longitudinal study by the research firm MDRC.   

Low-income students who participated in both a math-focused preschool curriculum and extracurricular math clubs during their first year of school closed nearly 30 percent of the math achievement gap between themselves and their wealthier peers by the end of kindergarten, the study showed. 

As part of an ongoing evaluation partnership between MDRC and Robin Hood, a New York City-based antipoverty organization, researchers tracked students entering New York City public schools during the city's Making Pre-K Count initiative in 2013. Some of those students participated in Building Blocks, a 30-hour curriculum focused on helping students learn numbers, shapes, and basic geometry.

"The core part of the Building Blocks philosophy is to ask children questions like, 'how do you know?' to really get them to elucidate their thinking and get them to expand on mathematical thinking, rather than just fact-based information," Mattera said. "It is intended to move children toward problem-solving and a deeper understanding of math across a number of math domains."

The Building Blocks curriculum showed some benefits, but at a time when most Big Apple preschools were moving to become more academically rigorous, Shira Mattera, a research associate and project director at MDRC, said students in control group schools saw a big jump in their own math instructional time. For example, prior studies had found that students in a typical preschool program received a little more than an hour of math instruction a week, but during the ramp-up for Building Blocks, students in the control group of schools were receiving three times that much math content. Students in the Building Blocks program had an hour more math than the students in control schools, she found. 

And a year after they completed the program, students who had participated in Building Blocks had better working memory and attitudes toward math, and slightly higher math scores than students in the control group, but the last result was minimal. 

That isn't surprising: A 2015 analysis of 39 different early-childhood-education programs found that most intelligence-related boosts from preschool faded within a year or two. In large part, University of Santa Barbara researcher John Protzko found those fade-outs came because students who had gotten a developmental boost from a strong early education program adapted to less-enriched academic environments in later grades, and students in the control groups simply caught up. Talking about that analysis, Protzko explained: "It's easy to think of this in terms of loss—you raised intelligence, and now these kids have lost it. But adaptation is a better way to think about it. When you remove the more challenging environment [of the intervention], the students adapt to the level of cognitive challenge they have."

And that's where the "High 5s" extracurricular clubs came in. Some of the students who had participated in the Building Blocks program in preschool also participated in "High 5s," small math "clubs" held before or after school or at lunch, in which four to five students played math games and hands-on activities with a teacher. Combined, the two programs closed 29 percent of the math achievement gap between low-income children and their wealthier peers at the end of kindergarten. 

Researchers plan to continue to follow the students through 3rd grade to gauge whether supplemental clubs can continue to bolster the benefits of preschool for low-income children.

"Longitudinal studies of early-childhood programs suggest that high-quality preschool experiences lay the foundation for lasting educational benefits," said Barbara Chow, director of the education program at the Heising-Simons Foundation, which helped fund the study, in a statement. "The encouraging, statistically significant results from the Making Pre-K Count program and the High 5s supplement suggest a path forward to boost early math skills and, potentially, longer-term academic achievement of children from low-income families."


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