Yesterday, we began our summary of the Brookings Institution Report “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge” by describing the complex landscape of pre-k programs in the United States. Today we examine what is currently known about how pre-k programs affect children’s learning immediately after program completion and into the elementary grades.
With the caveat that “that the research methods that have been deployed to understand pre-k impacts are not yet as strong as we would like and that our conclusions have yet to stand the test of time,” the authors list six consensus statements:
Studies often find greater improvement in learning at the end of the pre-k year for economically disadvantaged children and dual language learners than for more advantaged and English-proficient children.
Children who do not enjoy a nurturing environment at home for positive cognitive stimulation can experience a needed boost for early skill and behavioral development from pre-k.
Similarly, children whose primary language at home is not English can make significant English language progress as well as mutually-reinforcing improvements in other academic skills.
The exposure of disadvantaged and non-English speaking children to more advantaged and English-proficient children may be one of the inputs for the improvements. This means: The best programs are targeted to a mix of children, not only to the ones most likely to experience the most benefit.
Pre-k programs are not all equally effective.
Early learning offers clear potential benefits to children, but not all pre-k programs equally support early learning.
Programs that support “serve-and-return” instructional and social interactions between teachers and children, and among the children themselves—through effective curricula, professional development and coaching for pre-k teachers, and organized, positive and engaging classroom experiences—are associated with stronger pre-k outcomes.
Children’s early learning trajectories depend on the quality of their learning experiences not only before and during their pre-k year, but also following the pre-k year.
The best pre-k programs give students a boost in mastering the routines and pre-academic skills that support success in later years. However, that boost will need to be “recharged” throughout the children’s academic careers to have a lasting effect.
This principle suggests that pre-k programs and subsequent elementary school education need to be integrated, so that students can both demonstrate mastery of their skills and be challenged—at an appropriate level—to learn new ones. Classroom experiences that either do not take advantage of learned skills or that introduce difficult material too quickly may erase the advantages gained in pre-k.
Convincing evidence shows that children attending a diverse array of state and school district pre-k programs are more ready for school at the end of their pre-k year than children who do not attend pre-k. Improvements in academic areas such as literacy and numeracy are most common; the smaller number of studies of social-emotional and self-regulatory development generally show more modest improvements in those areas.
The authors recognize that there is not enough research across the wide variety of pre-k programs to make definitive conclusions. Nonetheless, the research strongly suggests that pre-k does provide an academic boost into kindergarten despite the differing methodologies used and the variety of programs studied.
Convincing evidence on the longer-term impacts of scaled-up pre-k programs on academic outcomes and school progress is sparse, precluding broad conclusions. The evidence that does exist often shows that pre-k-induced improvements in learning are detectable during elementary school, but studies also reveal null or negative longer-term impacts for some programs.
Some studies compare students who participated in pre-k programs with those who didn’t and show positive results; however, it is unclear whether the two groups of children and families come from similar backgrounds or not, i.e. whether they represented a controlled comparison.
Studies with stronger methodologies show more variability in their results, but they may not share the same methodology or look at comparable programs.
As a consequence, while the initial evidence suggests that pre-k provides positive benefits, more study must be done before researchers can draw general conclusions about long-term effects.
States have displayed considerable ingenuity in designing and implementing their pre-k programs. Ongoing innovation and evaluation are needed during and after pre-k to ensure continued improvement in creating and sustaining children’s learning gains. Research-practice partnerships are a promising way of achieving this goal. These kinds of efforts are needed to generate more complete and reliable evidence on effectiveness factors in pre-k and elementary school that generate long-run impacts.
The authors recognize that the lack of consensus makes it difficult to develop, refine, and then scale up effective programs. Given policymakers’ increasing focus on evidence, however, they hope their identification of this lack of consensus will drive policymakers and evaluators to create more rigorous studies that are comparable across states.
So what can evaluators, administrators, and policymakers do?
The authors urge them to focus on the strategies that schools pursue to educate children after they leave pre-k, and to test which strategies are most successful; and also to build an understanding of how to recruit, train, develop and support effective pre-k teachers. The existing pre-k programs provide a “national laboratory” for observing early learning and making refinements; with what is already known about their benefits, the authors believe that—with proper study and evaluation—now is the time to scale up those efforts.