July 1, 2019
Pre-kindergarten, unlike traditional K-12 education, is implemented in a variety of settings. This mixed delivery model offers families more opportunities to choose a provider that suits their unique needs. Since 43 states and DC have established state-funded pre-K programs, understanding the impact of any specific program requires critical evaluation of the local context.
A study published in 2017 by the Early Childhood Research Quarterly explores the short-term outcomes of the Connecticut School Readiness Program (CSRP), one of three early learning programs in Connecticut that serve three- and four-year olds. Programs operating under CSRP range from part-day and part-year to yearlong, extended-day services for eligible three- and four-year-olds. At least 60 percent of the seats must be filled by children from families at or below 75 percent of the state median income. In 2018, CSRP programs served over 12,000 children. Researchers found overall positive outcomes in reading and math scores for children who attended CSRP, but the magnitude and significance of those effects is inconsistent across different racial, ethnic, and economic subgroups.
As in other areas of the country, early care and education costs in Connecticut impose a major financial burden on working families. In 2017, the average cost for center or home-based child care was $19,000, roughly 28 percent of the median household income. Connecticut has an increasingly high wealth disparity, meaning that as its middle class diminishes, most residents will fall into either high-income or low-income tax brackets. To combat these challenges, the largest of Connecticut’s state early childhood programs, CSRP, was created in 1997 with the goal of targeting quality programming to children from low-income backgrounds, non-native English-speaking families, and historically underserved racial and ethnic groups.
From a sample of about 500 students, researchers compared achievement scores from two groups of randomly selected full-day, full-year CSRP students with scores of children who did not have access to pre-K at all. They observed positive overall effects of CSRP on student outcomes—children who attended the program had the strongest and most consistent performance on math and reading assessments administered by researchers. However, these positive outcomes varied by student race and family income. Math and reading effects were smaller in magnitude and significance for black students; there were null effects for Latino children. In other words, researchers didn’t find what they were expecting to. Across all demographics, outcomes were different for children from low-income backgrounds, suggesting that CSRP alone is not enough to mitigate poverty or language barriers that might impede student success.
Based on these achievement disparities, researchers concluded that CSRP might not be functioning as intended. One explanation is insufficient targeted recruiting—CSRP enrollment numbers do not accurately represent all children in the state who are eligible, meaning that the results might be driven by who enrolls their child and who does not. Another is policy and practice within CSRP programs. As one author stated, “research studies have found that, starting as early as prekindergarten, schools and classrooms are not always welcoming environments for children of immigrant families, families of color, and families struggling with poverty.” Common barriers to achievement for children of color beginning in pre-K are developmentally inappropriate disciplinary practices, deficit thinking, and failure to use culturally competent parent engagement strategies. It is particularly challenging for dual language learners when language development is framed as a “language problem” and multiple pathways to proficiency are not acknowledged.
At the time of publication, Connecticut was ranked among the top ten states for public pre-K investment by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Authors of this study concluded that, all factors considered, CSRP is a worthwhile early intervention strategy, meeting five out of NIEER’s ten quality benchmarks. While CSRP does not require lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, assistant teachers to have a CDA, or structured classroom observations, it does have a balanced student-teacher ratio and a comprehensive, culturally aligned curriculum.
Connecticut spends more money than most states on public pre-kindergarten, averaging $7,725 per child enrolled in CSRP. Funding dollars, however, are just one of several aspects of a comprehensive program. Disparities in overall and differential quality and outcomes are not to be overlooked in the shifting early childhood education policy climate. This research on CSRP is a call to policymakers and practitioners to further tailor services to the students for whom the program is designed. As early care and education gains an increasing share of national attention, states and localities must ensure that programs equitably serve all children.