Preschool is Not Magic. Here’s What Is.

If there is one thing that everyone knows about policy-relevant research in education, it is this: Participation in high-quality preschool programs (at age 4) has substantial and lasting effects on students’ academic and life success, especially for students from disadvantaged homes. The main basis for this belief is the findings of the famous Perry Preschool program, which randomly assigned 128 disadvantaged youngsters in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to receive intensive preschool services or not to receive these services. The Perry Preschool study found positive effects at the end of preschool, and long-term positive impacts on outcomes such as high school graduation, dependence on welfare, arrest rates, and employment (Schweinhart, Barnes, & Weikart, 1993).

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But prepare to be disappointed.

Recently, a new study has reported a very depressing set of outcomes. Lipsey, Farran, & Durkin (2018) published a large, randomized study evaluating Tennessee’s statewide preschool program. 2990 four year olds were randomly assigned to participate in preschool, or not. As in virtually all preschool studies, children who were randomly assigned to preschool scored much better than those who were assigned to the control group. But these results diminished in kindergarten, and by first grade, no positive effects could be detected. By third grade, the control group actually scored significantly higher than the former preschool students in math and science, and non-significantly higher in reading!

Jon Baron of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation wrote an insightful commentary on this study, noting that when such a large, well-done, long-term, randomized study is reported, we have to take the results seriously, even if they disagree with our most cherished beliefs. At the end of Baron’s brief summary was a commentary by Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey, two the study’s authors, telling the story of the hostile reception to their paper in the early childhood research community and the difficulties they had getting this exemplary experiment published.

Clearly, the Tennessee study was a major disappointment. How could preschool have no lasting effects for disadvantaged children?

Having participated in several research reviews on this topic (e.g., Chambers, Cheung, & Slavin, 2016), as well as some studies of my own, I have several observations to make.

Although this may have been the first large, randomized evaluation of a state-funded preschool program in the U.S., there have been many related studies that have had the same results. These include a large, randomized study of 5000 children assigned to Head Start or not (Puma et al., 2010), which also found positive outcomes at the end of the pre-K year, but only scattered lasting effects after pre-K. Very similar outcomes (positive pre-k outcomes with little or no lasting impact) have been found in a randomized evaluation of a national program called Sure Start in England (Melhuish, Belsky, & Leyland, 2010), and one in Australia (Claessens & Garrett, 2014).

Ironically, the Perry Preschool study itself failed to find lasting impacts, until students were in high school. That is, its outcomes were similar to those of the Tennessee, Head Start, Sure Start, and Australian studies, for the first 12 years of the study. So I suppose it is possible that someday, the participants in the Tennessee study will show a major benefit of having attended preschool. However, this seems highly doubtful.

It is important to note that some large studies of preschool attendance do find positive and lasting effects. However, these are invariably matched, non-experimental studies of children who happened to attend preschool, compared to others who did not. The problem with such studies is that it is essentially impossible to statistically control for all the factors that would lead parents to enroll their child in preschool, or not to do so. So lasting effects of preschool may just be lasting effects of having the good fortune to be born into the sort of family that would enroll its children in preschool.

What Should We Do if Preschool is Not Magic?

Let’s accept for the moment the hard (likely) reality that one year of preschool is not magic, and is unlikely to have lasting effects of the kind reported by the Perry Preschool study (and no other randomized studies.) Do we give up?

No.  I would argue that rather than considering preschool magic-or-nothing, we should think of it the same way we think about any other grade in school. That is, a successful school experience should not be one terrific year, but fourteen years (pre-k to 12) of great instruction using proven programs and practices.

First comes the preschool year itself, or the two year period including pre-k and kindergarten. There are many programs that have been shown in randomized studies to be successful over that time span, in comparison to control groups of children who are also in school (see Chambers, Cheung, & Slavin, 2016). Then comes reading instruction in grades K-1, where randomized studies have also validated many whole-class, small group, and one-to-one tutoring methods (Inns et al., 2018). And so on. There are programs proven to be effective in randomized experiments, at least for reading and math, for every grade level, pre-k to 12.

The time has long passed since all we had in our magic hat was preschool. We now have quite a lot. If we improve our schools one grade at a time and one subject at a time, we can see accumulating gains, ones that do not require waiting for miracles. And then we can work steadily toward improving what we can offer children every year, in every subject, in every type of school.

No one ever built a cathedral by waving a wand. Instead, magnificent cathedrals are built one stone at a time. In the same way, we can build a solid structure of learning using proven programs every year.

References

Baron, J. (2018). Large randomized controlled trial finds state pre-k program has adverse effects on academic achievement. Straight Talk on Evidence. Retrieved from http://www.straighttalkonevidence.org/2018/07/16/large-randomized-controlled-trial-finds-state-pre-k-program-has-adverse-effects-on-academic-achievement/

Chambers, B., Cheung, A., & Slavin, R. (2016). Literacy and language outcomes of balanced and developmental-constructivist approaches to early childhood education: A systematic review. Educational Research Review 18, 88-111.

Claessens, A., & Garrett, R. (2014). The role of early childhood settings for 4-5 year old children in early academic skills and later achievement in Australia. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29, (4), 550-561.

Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2018). Effective programs for struggling readers: A best-evidence synthesis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC.

Lipsey, Farran, & Durkin (2018). Effects of the Tennessee Prekindergarten Program on children’s achievement and behavior through third grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.03.005

Melhuish, E., Belsky, J., & Leyland, R. (2010). The impact of Sure Start local programmes on five year olds and their families. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Puma, M., Bell, S., Cook, R., & Heid, C. (2010). Head Start impact study: Final report.  Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Schweinhart, L. J., Barnes, H. V., & Weikart, D. P. (1993). Significant benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool study through age 27 (Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation No. 10) Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.

 

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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Little Sleepers: Long-Term Effects of Preschool

In education research, a “sleeper effect” is not a way to get all of your preschoolers to take naps. Instead, it is an outcome of a program that appears not immediately after the end of the program, but some time afterwards, usually a year or more. For example, the mother of all sleeper effects was the Perry Preschool study, which found positive outcomes at the end of preschool but no differences throughout elementary school. Then positive follow-up outcomes began to show up on a variety of important measures in high school and beyond.

Sleeper effects are very rare in education research. To see why, consider a study of a math program for third graders that found no differences between program and control students at the end of third grade, but then a large and significant difference popped up in fourth grade or later. Long-term effects of effective programs are often seen, but how can there be long-term effects if there are no short-term effects on the way? Sleeper effects are so rare that many early childhood researchers have serious doubts about the validity of the long-term Perry Preschool findings.

I was thinking about sleeper effects recently because we have recently added preschool studies to our Evidence for ESSA website. In reviewing the key studies, I was once again reading an extraordinary 2009 study by Mark Lipsey and Dale Farran.

The study randomly assigned Head Start classes in rural Tennessee to one of three conditions. Some were assigned to use a program called Bright Beginnings, which had a strong pre-literacy focus. Some were assigned to use Creative Curriculum, a popular constructive/developmental curriculum with little emphasis on literacy. The remainder were assigned to a control group, in which teachers used whatever methods they ordinarily used.

Note that this design is different from the usual preschool studies frequently reported in the newspaper, which compare preschool to no preschool. In this study, all students were in preschool. What differed is only how they were taught.

The results immediately after the preschool program were not astonishing. Bright Beginnings students scored best on literacy and language measures (average effect size = +0.21 for literacy, +0.11 for language), though the differences were not significant at the school level. There were no differences at all between Creative Curriculum and control schools.

Where the outcomes became interesting was in the later years. Ordinarily in education research, outcomes measured after the treatments have finished diminish over time. In the Bright Beginnings/Creative Curriculum study the outcomes were measured again when students were in third grade, four years after they left school. Most students could be located because the test was the Tennessee standardized test, so scores could be found as long as students were still in Tennessee schools.

On third grade reading, former Bright Beginnings students now scored significantly better than former controls, and the difference was statistically significant and substantial (effect size = +0.27).

In a review of early childhood programs at www.bestevidence.org, our team found that across 16 programs emphasizing literacy as well as language, effect sizes did not diminish in literacy at the end of kindergarten, and they actually doubled on language measures (from +0.08 in preschool to +0.15 in kindergarten).

If sleeper effects (or at least maintenance on follow-up) are so rare in education research, why did they appear in these studies of preschool? There are several possibilities.

The most likely explanation is that it is difficult to measure outcomes among four year-olds. They can be squirrely and inconsistent. If a pre-kindergarten program had a true and substantial impact on children’s literacy or language, measures at the end of preschool may not detect it as well as measures a year later, because kindergartners and kindergarten skills are easier to measure.

Whatever the reason, the evidence suggests that effects of particular preschool approaches may show up later than the end of preschool. This observation, and specifically the Bright Beginnings evaluation, may indicate that in the long run it matters a great deal how students are taught in preschool. Until we find replicable models of preschool, or pre-k to 3 interventions, that have long-term effects on reading and other outcomes, we cannot sleep. Our little sleepers are counting on us to ensure them a positive future.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

Whadja Do In School Today?

Every parent of a four or five year old knows the drill. Your child comes home after pre-kindergarten or kindergarten. “Whadja do today?” you  say with eager anticipation, thinking of all the friends your child must have made, the stories your child heard, the songs your child sang, the projects or dress-up or phonics or math, or…well, anything.

“Nuffin,” your child says, wandering out of range to avoid further interrogation.

You know your child did a whole lot more than “nuffin.” But how can you find out so that you can build on what the teacher did each day?

One answer is something our group at the Success for All Foundation created utilizing Investing in Innovation (i3) funding with partners at Sesame Workshop, Sirius Thinking, and Johns Hopkins University. We call it Home Links. Home Links are 10-15 minute videos, akin to short television shows, that parents and children watch together, 4 evenings a week. Each show uses content from Sesame Street and animations we have made with Sirius Thinking, so they are a bit like Sesame Street shows themselves, with one huge difference: the content of the shows reflects the activities that children and teachers were doing that day in school.

The Home Links give kids reinforcement and extension of vocabulary and skills they learned that day, and that’s important. But more important, they tell parents what’s happening in school. When a show contains skits about fall, the letter V, counting to five, and singing traditional songs, the parents know that all of these things are happening in school. Our surveys found that 96% of the time, a parent, grandparent, or other relative watches with the child. At the end of each show there is music and movement, and parents tell us they dance with their children, and they love the closeness and fun. But parents also now know how to support their children’s learning. If the topic is markets, they know to point out interesting things when they next are at the market with their child. If the letter is T, they know to point out things that begin with T. If the math segment is on shapes, parents know to ask children about shapes they see in daily life. Home should not be another classroom, but it’s the ideal place for a child to learn that the things he or she is learning in school are important to his or her parents and exist in his or her community. It also helps children understand that knowing about and learning about those things brings pride and builds curiosity.

Home Links are sent home on DVDs each day. We are now looking for funding to make an online version so families can download Home Links to digital devices such as phones and tablets.

Right now, Home Links are being used in approximately 300 preschool and kindergarten classes already using our proven Success for All whole-school approach. In the future, we hope to disseminate Home Links to preschools and kindergartens whether or not they use Success for All.

When this happens, more and more parents won’t have to ask, “Whadja do in school today?” They’ll know. And they’ll know how to build on what they find out.

And that ain’t nuffin’.

 

The Investing in Innovation (i3) program is a federal competitive grant program at the U.S. Department of Education, within the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII). It provides funding to support local education agencies or nonprofit organizations in partnership with LEAs and/or schools to expand and develop innovative practices that can serve as models of best practices and to identify and document best practices that can be shared and taken to scale in the areas of improving student achievement or student growth, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, increasing high school graduation rates, or increasing college enrollment and completion rates.

More information on the i3 program can be found here.

More information on Success for All Foundation’s grant Around the Corner: A Technology-Enhanced Approach to Early Literacy can be found here.

Early Childhood Education in the Balance

Back in the day, a kindergarten was a garden for children, a place where children could play, sing, paint, and pretend. Letters, numbers, and anything that smacked of formal schooling was minimized. Instead, kindergarten was intended to facilitate the transition from home to school, in a home-like setting.

Today, of course, kindergarten is less of a garden and more of a hothouse. At least in public schools, it’s a rare kindergarten that does not have a strong focus on letters and numbers. A child exposed only to the play-oriented children’s garden of old would arrive in first grade at a serious disadvantage. In most kindergarten classes there is still plenty of play, singing, and make-believe, but also a lot of literacy and numeracy.

Debate in early childhood education has largely shifted from the kindergarten to the pre-kindergarten. For a long time, programs for four-year-olds have resembled kindergartens of the past. Children are painting, playing with blocks, dressing up for make-believe, using sand and water tables, singing, and listening to stories.

In most states, pre-K is not available to all, and many children who attend pre-K do so as part of the federal Head Start program. A lot of attention has been paid to the question, “Does Head Start work?” For decades, the evidence that it does has depended on longitudinal studies of the Perry Preschool, the Abecedarian Project, and other small, colossally funded experimental approaches. However, evaluations of run-of-the-mill Head Start programs find a consistent and depressing pattern. Immediately after their Head Start experience, young children perform somewhat better on cognitive measures than do similar children who did not receive pre-K services at all, but within a year or two these differences fade away.

Seeing these outcomes, early childhood researchers began in the 1990s to experiment with ways to make Head Start and other early childhood approaches more effective. Numerous studies compared outcomes for children who were all in preschool, but who received different programs. In the mid-2000s, a large federal project called the Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER) initiative evaluated a large number of programs using consistent, rigorous methods. This study added substantially to the number and quality of studies of preschool models of all kinds.

My colleagues Bette Chambers, Alan Cheung, and I have just completed a review of research on studies that compared alternative approaches to pre-K. We found 32 studies of 22 programs that met our standards. These studies were of exceptional quality; 30 of the studies involved random assignment to conditions. We mainly compared programs with elements focused on literacy (which we called “balanced” approaches) to those that did not have such elements (“developmental” approaches). The outcomes were striking. At the end of pre-K, children in the balanced programs performed better, on average, on both literacy and language measures. The literacy outcomes were not too surprising, because the balanced programs had a stronger emphasis on literacy. However, at the end of kindergarten, the children who had been in the balanced groups still performed at a higher level on both literacy and language measures.

Our review supports the idea that young children can benefit from literacy experiences, to learn letters and sounds, while they continue to play, pretend, draw, and sing. Keeping literacy out of the mix does not benefit children immediately or one year later.

I’d be the last person to want to take the garden out of kindergarten or preschool. Pre-K can still be fun, social, and interactive. But adding in a focus on literacy helps children arrive in first grade ready to succeed in reading. How can that be a bad thing?

Happy 50th Birthday, Head Start!

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Head Start! Children, please look up from your sand tables and dress-up corners and finger-painting tables and sing “Happy Birthday”! Gloria, I’m watching you. Do not even think of putting finger paint in Michael’s hair! Is everyone ready?

Of all the Great Society programs, Head Start is perhaps the most popular. It provides center-based services to millions of very cute 3- and 4-year-olds, mostly children from disadvantaged families. If members of the public, educators, and policy makers know a single conclusion from educational research, it is that early-childhood programs have substantial and long-term positive impacts. As one consequence of this understanding, President Obama and his administration have pushed hard to expand Head Start and other early-childhood programs to serve many more children.

Does Head Start work? Well, it all depends on what you mean by “Head Start” and what you mean by “work.” Some highly enriched early-childhood models, such as the famous Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian program, do have evidence of long-term gains in important life outcomes not enjoyed by similar children who did not attend preschool at all. However, longitudinal evaluations of run-of-the-mill Head Start programs find limited impacts into kindergarten and few detectable differences afterwards. As a result of these evaluations, early-childhood experts are now careful to say that “high-quality” early-childhood or Head Start programs work, leaving undefined exactly what they mean by “high-quality.”

As more children enroll in Head Start and other early-childhood programs, the question has moved from “Does it help disadvantaged children attend early-childhood programs?” to “What kinds of early-childhood programs should be provided to disadvantaged children?” Here there is ferocious debate. On one side are traditionalists who insist that early-childhood programs emphasize play, imagination, listening to stories, singing, and crafts, for example, but not phonemic awareness or other pre-reading skills. Such “developmental” programs are designed to ease children into the school in a home-like setting and build children’s language, school skills, and general orientation toward learning.

On the other side there are some educators who believe that disadvantaged children in pre-kindergarten need to be taught like first graders to ingrain the school readiness, literacy, and math skills necessary to succeed in school. In the middle are “balanced” programs, advocated by those who believe that in addition to play, exploration, imagination, and language, it is beneficial to expose children to phonemic awareness, phonics, and other pre-reading as well as early math skills, on the principle that it is important to give disadvantaged preschoolers a, well, “head start” on the skills that will soon determine their success in school. Preschool should not look like third grade, with kids in rows answering questions and doing worksheets. (In fact, third grade should not look like this, either.) Phonemic awareness and phonics in balanced programs are typically introduced in preschool using rhymes, games, songs, and exploratory activities to learn the sounds and shapes of letters. As phonics and math have definitively pushed their way into kindergarten, traditionalists hold onto preschool as the last bastion of child-centered education, while advocates of balanced programs argue that children need to be prepared for the settings in which they will soon find themselves.

My colleagues and I are carrying out a review of research on the literacy and language outcomes of different approaches to early-childhood education. (Watch for it in the Best Evidence Encyclopedia in the next month or so.) Our findings are very interesting. We focused on studies that compared children in “developmental” programs with those in “balanced” programs, which are ones that include most elements of developmental programs but also include direct teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics. Not surprisingly, both in preschool and on kindergarten follow-up measures, children who participated in balanced programs performed much better on assessments of early reading skills. Perhaps more surprisingly, these children also performed better than those in the developmental programs on measures of language, in preschool and on kindergarten follow-up.

What our findings suggest is that teaching phonics and phonemic awareness in preschool is beneficial for reading and, far from undermining children’s language development, also enhances performance in this arena.

It is probably unrealistic to expect that one year of quality early childhood will turn around a child’s life forever, but seen as the beginning of a progression from high-quality preschool into high-quality kindergarten into high-quality elementary and secondary school, preschool is very important. Our review supports the idea that a portion of the precious time preschool teachers have with young children can be devoted to building pre-reading skills without harming language development, and in fact contributing to overall performance.

And that’s a head start worth celebrating!

On Beyond Preschool: Alleviating Poverty Over a Lifespan

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Preschool is good for disadvantaged children. But is preschool alone sufficient to significantly reduce poverty and inequality? Like many researchers, I’m delighted about the current enthusiasm for preschool at the policy level, and would not want to throw cold water on it. Yet almost all studies of garden-variety replicable preschool programs show that the clear positive effects of preschool in the early grades fade as children go through elementary school. This should not be a cause for despair, but rather for realism about how to help children succeed all the way through to adulthood. If preschool is seen as the first step in a multi-step societal strategy, it is worthy of all the attention and investment it is currently receiving. If we’re counting on preschool alone to solve all problems, we’re just not being serious.

Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow at the Brookings Institution recently issued a paper making exactly this point, and illustrating it with evidence. They argue for intervening early and often rather than once and done. To support their position, they take proven, replicable programs that are readily available and imagine that government provided disadvantaged children with all of them in sequence, from early childhood to adolescence.

Sawhill & Karpilow start with a gap in “success rates” at various ages between children born into families living above or below 200 percent of the poverty line. The gap in chances of entering the middle class is 20 percentage points at age 40.

According to the authors, preschool participation plus the HIPPY parenting program could reduce a 22 percent “success gap” at school entry by 14 percentage points. Yet this falls to 5 points by middle childhood, 3 points by adolescence, and 2 points by middle age. By this analysis, preschool is necessary but not sufficient to significantly reduce inequality.

Sawhill and Karpilow then (statistically) added in our Success for All program plus social-emotional learning interventions in elementary school. They also added in the Talent Development high school model.

The final result, by their estimates, was an elimination of the poverty gap in early and middle childhood. By adulthood, these interventions were estimated to reduce the 20-point success gap by 15 percentage points.

The exact size of the gap reduction is speculative, of course, but it’s the thinking that matters here, not the specifics. It never made sense that one big inoculation in preschool would set up a child for success throughout his or her life. Poverty isn’t like polio, which can be cured in one treatment. The factors that lead to a child being in a disadvantaged family at preschool are likely to persist afterwards, and top-quality education is needed at every age to help children overcome effects of poverty. Seen as a good start in a series of proven approaches appropriate to children’s needs from preschool through high school, preschool makes good sense. But if we fail to follow up with effective programs for the elementary and secondary grades, we will still have a lot of unnecessary inequality when today’s toddlers become tomorrow’s taxpayers.

Preschools and Evidence: A Child Will Lead Us

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These are exciting times for people who care about preschool, for people who care about evidence, and especially for people who care about both. President Obama advocated for expanding high-quality preschool opportunities, Bill de Blasio, the new Mayor of New York City, is proposing new taxes on the wealthy for this purpose, and many states are moving toward universal preschool, or at least considering it. The recently passed Omnibus Budget had $250 million in it for states to add to or improve their preschool programs.

What is refreshing is that after thirty years of agreement among researchers that it’s only high-quality preschools that have long-term positive effects, the phrase “high quality” has become part of the political dialogue. At a minimum, “high quality” means “not just underpaid, poorly educated preschool teachers.” But beyond this, “high quality” is easy to agree on, difficult to define.

This is where evidence comes in. We have good evidence about long-term effects of very high-quality preschool programs compared to no preschool, but identifying exceptionally effective, replicable programs (in comparison to run-of-the-mill preschools) has been harder.

The importance of identifying preschool programs that actually work is being recognized not only in academia, but in the general press as well. In the January 29 New York Times, Daniel Willingham and David Grissmer advocated local and national randomized experiments to find out what works in preschool. On January 30, Nicholas Kristof wrote about rigorous research supporting long-term effects of preschool. Two articles on randomized experiments in education would be a good week for Education Week, much less the New York Times.

With President Obama, John Boehner, and the great majority of Americans favoring expansion of high-quality preschools, this might be an extraordinarily good time for the U.S. Department of Education to sponsor development and evaluation of promising preschool models. At the current rate it will take a long time to get to universal pre-K, so in the meantime let’s learn what works.

The U. S. Department of Education did such a study several years ago called Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER), in which various models were compared to ordinary preschool approaches. PCER found that only a few models did better than their control groups, but there was a clear pattern to the ones that did. These were models that provided teachers with extensive professional development and materials with a definite structure designed to build vocabulary, phonemic awareness, early math concepts, and school skills. They were not just early introduction of kindergarten, but focused on play, themes, rhymes, songs, stories, and counting games with specific purposes well understood by teachers.

In a new R & D effort, innovators might be asked to create new, practical models, perhaps based on the PCER findings, and evaluate them in rigorous studies. Within a few years, we’d have many proven approaches to preschool, ones that would justify the optimism being expressed by politicians of all stripes.

Historically, preschool is one of the few areas of educational practice or policy in which politicians and the public consider evidence to have much relevance. Perhaps if we get this one right, they will begin to wonder, if evidence is good for four year olds, why shouldn’t we consult it for the rest of education policy? If evidence is to become important for all of education, perhaps it has to begin with a small child leading us.