canada africa partner reservation Surprising insights from a new preschool study

Surprising insights from a new preschool study

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New research shows that the effectiveness of preschool programs in promoting long-term academic success is unclear, with studies showing a mix of positive, negative and neutral outcomes.

New Review from Teachers College, Columbia UniversityUniversity of Virginia, University of California-Irvine and University of Delaware reveal varied impact of preschool programs on long-term academic success.

It is widely accepted that early childhood education programs are effective public investments to help children succeed in school and to reduce income- and race-related achievement gaps. However, a new groundbreaking study conducted by a team of researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University, University of Virginia, University of California-Irvine and the University of Delaware finds mixed evidence about the long-term effectiveness of today’s preschool programs to help children. succeed at school.

The study, ‘Unsettled Science on long-run effects of early education’, published today (May 2) in the journal Science, examined published evaluations of established, publicly funded preschool programs using rigorous designs. The four evaluations reported a mix of positive, negative, and no differences in the academic performance of children who did and did not attend preschool programs in primary school and beyond.

This study challenges prevailing assumptions within the field and highlights the importance of identifying key factors that promote the development of skills critical for success in both academic endeavors and in life, especially among children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mixed results from preschool programs

“Preschool programs have long been hailed as effective interventions, but our study reveals a more nuanced reality,” said senior author of the study Margaret Burchinal, research professor at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, University of Virginia.

“While many assume its positive impact, rigorous evaluations show a mix of results, including both successes and setbacks and, in some cases, no observable long-term effects. It is imperative that we design preschool programs that uniformly promote academic success, especially for children from low-income families.”

Burchinal further emphasizes, “Critically, for parents, especially those with limited financial resources, access to reliable child care is essential to workforce participation. Equally important are public preschool programs that not only provide reliable care, but also lay a solid foundation for their children’s academic success.”

Conflicting evidence and need for further research

Public opinion toward preschool is shaped primarily by two well-recognized randomized trials that found significant long-term benefits of attending preschool, as well as other, less rigorous studies that suggest positive short-term effects and, in a few cases, positive long-term outcomes. However, recent high-quality randomized evaluations of public preschool programs have produced conflicting evidence. Although these evaluations demonstrate positive effects on academic skills upon school entry, it remains unclear whether these programs improve academic success in the long term and beyond.

Two evaluations of scaled-up preschool programs showed mixed results. The Boston program improved high school graduation rates, while the Tennessee program led to poorer grades in elementary school. Two other evaluations found no difference in outcomes between attendees and non-attendees. This highlights the need for more research into effective preschool practices.

Long-term impact uncertain

These four studies paint a slightly less rosy picture of preschools’ ability to increase opportunities for children than previous studies. The authors argue that the optimistic findings from the previously widely cited random assignment studies more than 50 years ago may not carry over into today’s programs. Both programs served a small number of children, and children who lost the entrance lotteries did not have access to many of the safety net services and child care options available to parents today.

Although most recent evaluations show that public preschool programs improve reading and math skills at school entry, that benefit quickly disappears once children enter elementary school. The less rigorous studies of scaled-up programs are typically based on limited information about participants and non-attendees, allowing for the possibility that non-attendees differed from participants on important other factors – such as parenting beliefs and practices – that could influence the findings could explain to the benefit of the participants.

Recommendations for future research

“Our research suggests that researchers should be more cautious when making policy recommendations regarding the effects of public pre-K programs,” said Tyler Watts, assistant professor of developmental psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. “Currently, the best research makes it difficult to predict the long-term effects of these investments. We certainly agree that early childhood education is an important area for public investment. Yet, we cannot confidently claim that all public pre-k programs produce positive long-term outcomes.”

The author’s policy recommendations:

  • Funding public preschool programs requires lottery-based assessments of overcrowded classrooms. These assessments should measure a wider variety of classroom practices and follow children from elementary school through high school and, ideally, into adulthood.
  • To conduct longer-term follow-ups of existing lottery studies to see if they provide benefits in adulthood. The first lottery-based evaluation of Boston’s preschool program also found no differences in elementary school, so it will be important to see if other programs show similar effects.

Reference: “Troubled Science on the Long-Term Effects of Early Education” by Margaret Burchinal, Anamarie Whitaker, Jade Jenkins, Drew Bailey, Tyler Watts, Greg Duncan and Emma Hart, May 2, 2024, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.adn2141