Pre-K isn’t an inoculation: What comes next matters

Blog Post
April 19, 2018

When considering education-related policy changes, stakeholders are quick to ask: What are the long-term impacts for children? For more than fifty years, early education advocates have sought to quantify what they already knew to be true - that high-quality pre-K leaves children better prepared for the rigors of future schooling, especially for those at-risk.

But findings have been mixed regarding the persistence of pre-K effects. Much of the available research showing lasting effects has focused on a small sample, a single program, or limited measures of quality. Opponents have argued that the findings cannot be generalized to most pre-K programs. Then other studies have found positive effects at kindergarten entry but that then “fade out” as students progress through elementary school. Opponents use these findings to argue that no measurable return on pre-K investments exist. However, in a new study out of the University of Virginia, The role of elementary school quality in the persistence of preschool effects, the authors find that the quality of the elementary school students matriculate into matters for whether pre-K gains persist. Which makes sense, right? It is unrealistic to expect the benefits gained in any one year of schooling to be maintained in a low-quality setting. In fact, the authors suggest that to believe so would be “to believe in magic.”

The study’s authors use the data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Cohort of 1998 to estimate the extent to which the academic benefits of pre-K persist as a function of the quality of the elementary school children subsequently experience. They find that academic benefits of pre-K were largely sustained through the end of fifth grade when children subsequently attended a high-quality elementary school while less than one quarter of these benefits persisted when children attended a low-quality elementary school.

This study is a welcome reminder that as it states, “preschool programs do prepare children academically for kindergarten, validating contemporary policy initiatives that focus on investing early,”  but that “we must pay careful attention to what is realistic to expect from one year of preschool education and the conditions under which its benefits persist or diminish.”

To determine quality the authors use  comprehensive measures of school level quality, including teacher turnover and absences, schoolwide academic performance, teacher to student ratio, school climate, school safety practices and incidences of violence and crime. According to the authors, these broader school-level indicators have shown validity as an overall gauge of the quality of schooling. This aligns with the key areas included in an evidence-based diagnostic assessment of school effectiveness created by the University of Chicago based on 20 years of research

In an interview with Kristie Kauerz, director of the National P-3 Center at the University of Washington says that the results shouldn’t be used to blame Pre-K or K-3 and that she “hopes that studies like this will highlight that these worlds need to come together in better and different ways.”

When we talked to Rolf Grafwallner, program director for Early Childhood Initiatives at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), he explained that “you have to look at this period [PreK-3rd] as a block. You can’t piecemeal it.” He offers an example of his time as the state superintendent of Maryland, where poor performance on the eighth grade state math assessment following strong performance by those same students in fifth grade led his team to look at what was happening broadly within and across middle schools rather than a small piece of the system such as quality of 8th grade math curricula or teacher instruction.  

Similarly, in New America’s 2015 analysis of state-level B-3rd policies found few states with aligned early childhood and elementary systems. The authors concluded that simply “investing in or addressing bits and pieces will not result in considerably better outcomes for all children. What is necessary is a coherent and connected set of policies that flow and fit together.”

In an interview with Lori Connors-Tadros, senior project director for the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) at the National Institute for Early Education Research, she explained that fully aligned curricula across PreK-3rd is one of the core issues. States need to ensure early learning standards and K-12 standards are meaningfully aligned, curricula are mapped to those standards and used across districts, and that teachers are well prepared and receive ongoing support and professional development to implement them.

Connors-Tadros suggests that district pacing charts can be used to inform teacher lesson plans and material selection. Even in local control states, she explains, states can inform, incentivize, and purchase high-quality curricula.

Kauerz also emphasizes the role states and districts can play in creating a better aligned, high-quality system. State education agencies can conduct an internal audit to determine how they’re bringing pre-K and early elementary stakeholders together, she explains, and determine how they might encourage or discourage continuity in their organizational structure.  One district she has worked with, for instance, took an active step towards better alignment by eliminating district-level positions that were duplicative on the pre-K and K-3 side and instead created a director of pre-K and elementary success. This position oversees all PreK-3rd grade teacher professional development, which helps establish a common approach and language.

There is an abundance of research showing high-quality pre-K can successfully prepare children for kindergarten. But, we also know access to full-day kindergarten is important. And, we have learned from PreK-3rd efforts that aligned standards, curricula, assessments, professional development also matter a lot. This new study elevates yet another piece of the puzzle: school climate and safety. The reality is that no single grade level, teacher, or school is enough to provide sustained benefits when followed by low-quality educational opportunities.