Skeptic Claims No Evidence for Full-Day Pre-K—He’s Mistaken

This weekend in the Washington Post, Bruce Fuller, education and public policy professor, attempted to reeducate the masses against the myth that “[a] full day in preschool yields stronger gains than half-day programs.” He explained that, in fact:
Young children attending quality half-day programs display the same learning gains as those attending full-day programs, according to a 2010 review by Child Trends, a respected Bethesda-based think tank.
This is false. Time matters a lot, even for middle-income children. In fact, authors of a respected literature review on the topic stated in summary that, “perhaps the most striking pattern of findings … is the increase in positive outcomes (and in some studies, decrease in negative outcomes) when children attend high quality early care and education program for more time.” But that wasn’t just any literature review, it was the same Child Trends review that Fuller cites as evidence that more time doesn’t matter.

[pullquote]The most striking pattern of findings … is the increase in positive outcomes (and in some studies, decrease in negative outcomes) when children attend high quality early care and education program for more time.[/pullquote]

There is one study, published in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly in 2008 (paywall), that was included in the literature review and supports Fuller’s claim. In it, the authors identified any program operating for 20 hours or more per week as “full-day.” They then found that there was no substantial difference in learning outcomes between children in half-day versus full-day programs, and determined that therefore, only quality improved outcomes.

The problem with this is that 20 hours is actually not very much time (that’s four hours per day, five days per week). According to the authors of the Child Trends study: “if there is an hourly threshold of attendance above which effects become apparent, it may be greater than the 20 hours per week used in this study.” In other words, time is not linearly correlated with increased positive outcomes. Rather, there is a threshold of hours above which we begin seeing significant gains, and the authors of the Child Trends report suggest that threshold may be above 20 hours. This may be the reason that when the National Institute of Early Education Research conducted a New Jersey study comparing students in 15-hour per week programs versus 40-hour per week programs, they did find significant gains from the children in the group who attended more hours.

(Tim Bartik over at Investing in Kids has a great post pointing out some of the research that shows that middle-income kids definitely benefit from a longer pre-K day, and it’s worth a read.)

In his opinion piece for the Post, Fuller not only misconstrues the findings of the research he cites, but also avoids mentioning a significant shortfall of the study. We wanted to set the record straight."

Author:

Alexander Holt is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. As a member of the higher education team, he studies the economics of higher education as well as the effect of the nonprofit sector on the U.S. economy.