Latest Debate on Pre-K Ignores the Impact of High-Quality Curricula and Aligned PD

The field’s best bet is to implement evidence-based curricula that explicitly target specific learning domains
Blog Post
March 20, 2024

Decades of research have found that children who attend pre-K arrive at kindergarten with stronger academic skills than those who do not. A handful of experimental studies have even found that positive impacts of some pre-K models last into adolescence and adulthood, improving high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

Yet, critics argue that much of this evidence is old and that the impacts of modern-day programs are both much smaller and unlikely to be sustained across time. They point to recent studies of universal public pre-K investments in Tennessee and Georgia finding that initial benefits of these programs on academic skills quickly faded, with pre-K attendees performing slightly worse on standardized tests than their peers by elementary and middle school. This pattern has fueled an ongoing discourse about the contemporary value of investments in early childhood education and how to identify and implement more effective pre-K instructional models.

But this discussion ignores the large and rigorous body of evidence we do have on what works to strengthen pre-K quality. Numerous studies have found that the field’s best bet is to implement evidence-based curricula that explicitly target specific learning domains like math, language, literacy, and social-emotional skills, following a pre-specified scope and sequence, supported by training and coaching aligned to those curricula. Researchers have consistently found that classrooms implementing these models not only have higher quality than classrooms implementing “global” or “whole child” curricula, but also do a much better job at boosting children’s academic skills. Importantly, the programs studied in Tennessee and Georgia did not implement evidence-based curricula, choosing instead to use “whole child” models with limited evidence of effectiveness.

Recent evidence shows that investments in domain-specific curricula coupled with aligned professional development may help address concerns about pre-K fadeout. For example, beginning in 2014 researchers from MDRC (with funding from Overdeck Family Foundation as well as others) conducted a randomized controlled trial evaluating the impacts of the domain-specific Building Blocks pre-K math curriculum in New York City universal pre-K sites. Teachers received substantial training and regular coaching on how to implement the curriculum. One group of schools also implemented a version of Building Blocks during kindergarten to align instruction across grades. The study found that this multi-year approach improved children’s math skills at the end of kindergarten—with an impact equivalent to four months of learning—and also had sustained positive effects on math and literacy standardized test scores in third grade.

In Boston Public Schools, the Department of Early Childhood has implemented evidence-based, domain-specific math and literacy pre-K curricula—supported by training and coaching to the model—since 2006. A rigorous study of the approach found it significantly boosted children’s math, language, literacy, and executive functioning skills at the start of kindergarten. But more compelling is recent work finding sustained impacts of the pre-K model on students’ standardized test scores through third grade in the highest-quality schools. Researchers from the University of Michigan are now exploring whether the contemporary version of the program—implemented from 2007-10—yields benefits through high school and beyond.

Other studies have found similar shorter-term benefits of domain-specific curricula focused on social-emotional skills. For example, in a federally-funded national study, researchers randomly assigned more than 100 Head Start centers to implement one of three social-emotional curricula supported by coaching and training—Preschool PATHS, Incredible Years, or Tools of the Mind (which receives funding from Overdeck Family Foundation)—or to continue business-as-usual instruction, typically using a "whole child" curriculum. All three models improved teacher practices and classroom quality and at least one domain of children’s social-emotional skills.

Districts around the country are starting to take note of this evidence. For example, in the summer of 2023, the Washington, DC public school system began rolling out evidence-based math and literacy curricula in its universal program serving three- and four-year-old students. A key part of that effort: training hundreds of teachers and developing a feasible coaching model that can support high levels of fidelity. Lessons from efforts like these can help other pre-K systems make investments in quality and help policymakers follow the evidence to best support our youngest learners.

Unfortunately, not all districts are like Washington, DC. The large majority of pre-K programs continue to use "whole child" curricula such as Creative Curriculum, a model that lacks a scope and sequence and has consistently shown no impact on classroom quality and child outcomes. And only 18 out of 62 state-funded pre-K programs met NIEER’s threshold for supplying quality professional development in SY 2021-22, which is key to implementing curricula shown to impact children’s outcomes.

In fact, a number of pre-K systems have recently made curricular choices in direct opposition to what research has found to be effective. In 2023, for instance, a year and a half after researchers found positive impacts of the Building Blocks model on students’ third-grade test scores, New York City reversed course and directed all sites to implement Creative Curriculum. Head Start, which serves over one million children per year in programs across the country, also continues to include Creative Curriculum, High Scope, and other "whole child" models in their approved list of curricula, despite studies finding no impacts on child outcomes.

We know states and districts are making major investments in pre-K, with the goal of boosting school readiness and promoting more equitable learning outcomes. Now is the time to ensure those investments follow the research, and that public dollars are spent on what works: evidence-based, domain-specific curricula supported by aligned teacher training and coaching. A renewed focus on implementing effective pre-K instructional models now will yield benefits for students in the short term, with the potential to redefine education for the future.