Finding ways to extend benefits of costly pre-K services

Finding ways to extend benefits of costly pre-K services

(N.J.) The inability of many students to retain the benefits of a high-quality pre-kindergarten program after only a few years has posed a significant public policy conundrum for decades.

But new research suggests the impacts can be more lasting when later educational experiences are characterized by low-teacher ratios and age appropriate learning activities.

The report, released this month by Mathematica—a private non-partisan research organization based in Princeton—built on a prior study of performances of early learners attending charter schools run by Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP.

The research team concluded that the “cumulative academic impacts” of the pre-K program at KIPP is large and statistically significant.

“The study also found suggestive evidence that KIPP pre-K may provide an added benefit above and beyond that of KIPP elementary schools without pre-K and that students who won an offer of admission to KIPP pre-K appear to maintain an academic advantage over their peers who did not win such an offer on one of two measures of reading achievement as they complete grade 2,” authors of the report said. “Taken together, these results provide preliminary evidence that KIPP pre-K positively affects student achievement and the impact persists to some degree once students reach grade 2.”

Ample research has shown the benefits that early childhood education can have on student achievement—especially among children from low-income families. Children who attended state pre-K have been found to have higher scores in math, receptive vocabulary and early literacy, according to the Mathematica report.

There is also substantial evidence that much of those gains can be short term. “Numerous studies have also shown that the observed effects of pre-K decrease (“fade out”) or disappear altogether over time,” the report said.

One key example is from a randomized control trial of Tennessee’s state pre-K program that showed positive impacts at the beginning of kindergarten, but those gains started to fade by the end of the kindergarten year.

“Evidence of fade out also has been documented elsewhere; for example, an experimental study of Head Start found positive impacts at the end of the Head Start year; by grade 3, however, there were no detectable differences,” the report said.

As a result, some policy-makers have questioned the benefits of pre-K programs, given the extensive resources required.

The Mathematica report, however, suggests that the way educational services are organized and delivered overall may be key.

KIPP is a charter network of 200 schools spanning all grade levels and serving about 80,000 students nationally. The vast majority of their enrollment come from low-income and minority communities with about 88 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

The Mathematica report found six key features of the KIPP program that might be driving the longer-term impacts of the pre-K curriculum:

  • The structure of the schools supported alignment across school levels. Specifically, shared leadership over and co-location of the pre-K and elementary grades may have created opportunities for continuity and alignment across grades, and allowed elementary grade staff to build off students’ pre-K experiences at KIPP.
  • KIPP pre-K programs were heavily focused on academics—particularly emphasizing foundational reading and math skills—during the period of study. Staff ranked reading and math knowledge and skills among their highest priorities during the study period, and employed varied instructional strategies in their classrooms.
  • Curriculum and assessments were mostly teacher developed and contributed to alignment in instruction across grades. Staff designed their own materials to instill the knowledge and skills required to be successful in later grades. They also helped to develop assessments used to measure progress toward this objective.
  • KIPP pre-K was designed to establish values and build a behavioral foundation for later success at KIPP. These values and behavioral expectations were taught explicitly and reinforced through relationships developed at the school.
  • Supports for children and families varied across schools, but all schools heavily emphasized building relationships with students and their families. Two programs provided robust child and family services during the study period. All schools in the sample placed a heavy emphasis on building strong relationships with students and their families.
  • The training provided to staff varied considerably by school, but most teachers were relatively new to teaching and came from a variety of backgrounds. Administrators or instructional coaches in two programs regularly observed teachers and provided coaching or feedback.