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Is Pre-k a Specific Intervention, or a Structural Reform?

As I wrote yesterday, whether we think about preschool as a specific intervention or a structural arrangement has significant implications for how we think and talk about pre-k research--as well as pre-kindergarten more generally.

Universal pre-k advocates, by and large, talk about pre-kindergarten as if it were a specific type of instructional intervention. For example, Pre-K Now's Marci Young recently wrote:

There's an education reform strategy that has 50 years of solid research behind it, with proven results that demonstrate how to improve student achievement...It's an investment proven to yield up to $7 for every public dollar invested, paying dividends to families, school districts and taxpayers. It's voluntary, high-quality pre-kindergarten.

But is this really the right frame to talk and think about pre-k research? I don't really think so. To be sure, much of the body of research on pre-k impacts comes from evaluations of the effectiveness of specific interventions. We have randomized-controlled trials showing that the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child Parent Centers interventions were effective in improving educational and life outcomes for the low-income students they served. We also have rigorous regression discontinuity designed studies showing that the approaches taken by Tulsa's Universal Pre-K Program and New Jersey's Abbott Pre-K Program produce learning gains for participating students.

But Universal Pre-K advocates are not, by and large, proposing to replicate the specific High/Scope, Abecedarian, CPC, or Tulsa models. Rather, what they're proposing is a structural innovation--the provision of public funding for pre-kindergarten. Granted, these groups also advocate that pre-k funding be accompanied by specific quality requirements, such as bachelor's degreed and certified teachers and small class sizes, that seek to replicate some of the qualities of demonstrated effective pre-k programs. But these are still largely structural characteristics, and advocating for them is not the same as advocating for the explicit replication of demonstrated effective models.

What does this mean for how we should think and talk about pre-k research? More on that tomorrow.

(Btw, yesterday's title quote was from Mark Twain.)

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