Expert Commentary

Preschool, Head Start and early education policies: Research review

2013 examination of relevant studies, reports and articles relating to policy proposals to expand federally funded preschool programs.

President Obama’s call in his 2013 State of the Union address for making high-quality preschool available for all children has prompted many in the news media to probe the existing research on pre-kindergarten programs. The academic literature often suggests the strong promise of these programs, particularly in helping lower-income children, but a careful reading will also detect some limits in the data.

It’s worth considering the current scope and funding of these programs. In 2010-2011, about 1.32 million children of all ages attended state-funded pre-K programs — for a total cost of $5.49 billion — and 28% of all 4-year-olds nationwide were enrolled, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). The institute’s 2011 report, however, notes falling government support: “Total state funding for pre-K programs decreased by nearly $60 million nationwide. This is the second year in a row for which inflation-adjusted spending dropped, following a $30 million decrease in 2009-2010.” The average subsidy per child of $4,151 dropped by $145 from the previous year, and decreases in funding were observed in 26 of the 39 states with programs; funding in 2011 was 15% below its 2001-2002 levels. The New York Times notes that few states are currently looking to expand their programs. (For reporters looking to localize this data, NIEER also ranks all of the state programs.)

Among the many noteworthy programs to consider as models, two are worth spotlighting in particular, given that the White House has partly drawn on them to inform its policy goals, as NPR notes. The first is the Perry Preschool Study, begun in 1962 in Michigan, which focuses on the lifetime development of 123 African-Americans originally enrolled in the program. Researchers continue to see rewards in later life. The other is the Carolina Abecedarian Project, started in 1972, which enrolled disadvantaged children mostly raised by single mothers; 98% were African-American. The research project studying these children over their lifetimes has been led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thirty years later, those researchers also continue to see benefits of these early interventions.

As for Head Start — the federal program begun in 1965 to provide preschool education, medical care, nutritional counseling and parenting support for low-income families — some recent government-backed research has raised questions about its long-term effectiveness, including a Department of Health and Human Services report in 2010 and another study in 2012. These reports come after decades of research touting the relative success of Head Start. While almost all research suggests that the program’s overall efficacy is good when children are participating, questions remain about the duration of its impact as students advance through school past third grade. (It’s worth noting that some researchers have asserted that these negative judgments about Head Start are premature.) A 2013 metastudy of 28 previous Head Start research papers concludes that the study design can significantly influence the degree of the program’s apparent success; overall, however, the researchers state that the accumulated evidence shows “Head Start is effective in improving children’s short-term (less than 1 year posttreatment) cognitive and achievement outcomes.” Additional research about the impact of the Child-Parent Center Education Program, the second-oldest federally funded preschool program behind Head Start, has also found significant benefits for that program.

In terms of the bigger picture — the way early educational interventions can benefit American society and the economy as a whole — the research of James Heckman of the University of Chicago is often cited in support of such programs. His Early Childhood Development Research project has produced a wide variety of studies and data-driven insights. Heckman’s inquiries are part of a larger body of continuing research examining how early education can help reduce crime and other long-term societal burdens.

In sum, studies suggest the power of well-funded programs targeting specific communities. Still, questions remain about the ability to scale and generalize these benefits nationwide through expanded policy., run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, reviewed the research the White House drew upon and concluded that some of the President’s claims are “misleading.” The Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy has a useful post exploring the nuances of these programs at the ground level, including the importance of assessments, curricula and teacher credentials.

For additional journalistic perspective across the ideological spectrum, see the following: “How to Pay for Obama’s Preschool Plan,” by Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic; “When Families Fail,” by David Brooks of the New York Times; “Can We Really Give Everyone Access to High Quality Preschool?” by Megan McArdle of The Daily Beast; and “What’s in Obama’s Preschool Proposal?” by Matt Yglesias of Slate.

The following are additional studies that provide perspective on prekindergarten education:


“Children’s Classroom Engagement and School Readiness Gains in Prekindergarten”
Chien, Nina C.; Howes, Carollee; Burchinal, Margaret; Pianta, Robert C.; Ritchie, Sharon; Bryant, Donna M.; Clifford, Richard M.; Early, Diane M.; Barbarin, Oscar A. Child Development, September/October 2010, Vol. 81, Issue 5, 1534-1549.

Abstract: “Child engagement in prekindergarten classrooms was examined using 2,751 children (mean age = 4.62) enrolled in public prekindergarten programs that were part of the Multi-State Study of Pre-Kindergarten and the State-Wide Early Education Programs Study. Latent class analysis was used to classify children into four profiles of classroom engagement: free play, individual instruction, group instruction, and scaffolded learning. Free play children exhibited smaller gains across the prekindergarten year on indicators of language/literacy and mathematics compared to other children. Individual instruction children made greater gains than other children on the Woodcock Johnson Applied Problems. Poor children in the individual instruction profile fared better than nonpoor children in that profile; in all other snapshot profiles, poor children fared worse than nonpoor children.”


“The Effects of Universal Pre-K on Cognitive Development”
Gormley, Jr., William T.; Gayer, Ted; Phillips, Deborah; Dawson, Brittany. Developmental Psychology, 2005, Vol. 41, Issue 6, 872-884.

Abstract: “In this study of Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program, the authors relied on a strict birthday eligibility criterion to compare ‘young’ kindergarten children who just completed pre-K to ‘old’ pre-K children just beginning pre-K. This regression-discontinuity design reduces the threat of selection bias. Their sample consisted of 1,567 pre-K children and 1,461 kindergarten children who had just completed pre-K. The authors estimated the impact of the pre-K treatment on Woodcock-Johnson Achievement test scores. The authors found test impacts of 3.00 points (0.79 of the standard deviation for the control group) for the Letter-Word Identification score, 1.86 points (0.64 of the standard deviation of the control group) for the Spelling score, and 1.94 points (0.38 of the standard deviation of the control group) for the Applied Problems score. Hispanic, Black, White, and Native American children all benefit from the program, as do children in diverse income brackets, as measured by school lunch eligibility status. The authors conclude that Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program has succeeded in enhancing the school readiness of a diverse group of children.”


“The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children”
Heckman, James J.; Masterov, Dimitriy V. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 2007, 29 (3): 446-493.

Excerpt: “Early environments play a large role in shaping later outcomes and … their importance is neglected in current policy. The recent evidence on the technology of human skill formation establishes that enriched early environments need to be followed up by good schooling and workplace learning environments. Complementarity of investments at different ages is an intrinsic feature of the human skill formation process. Enriching the early years will promote the productivity of schools by giving teachers better-quality students. Improving the schools will in turn, improve the quality of the workforce.”


“Peer Effects on Children’s Language Achievement During Pre-Kindergarten”
Mashburn, Andrew J.; Justice, Laura M.; Downer, Jason T.; Pianta, Robert C. Child Development, May/June 2009, Vol. 80, Issue 3, 686-702.

Excerpt: “The research findings presented here show that peer language skills make a small, but significant contribution to children’s language skills within the preschool classroom, whereby exposure to peers with strong language skills seems to provide children with an important resource for language learning, particularly in classrooms characterized by effective behavior management strategies. As researchers and policy makers seek evidence on classroom-based interventions that are effective in promoting children’s language acquisition, the present findings lend support to ecological theories of development that consider not only what children are taught, but the settings in which learning takes place. Although educational researchers have often considered teachers’ effective implementation of intervention components as the primary driver of an intervention’s efficacy, results from this study suggest that the language abilities of children within a classroom and the opportunities for peers to interact with one another may also contribute to the success of language intervention strategies.”


“Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children”
Heckman, James J. Science, June 2006: Vol. 312, No. 5782, 1900-1902.

Excerpt: “Investing in disadvantaged young children is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and at the same time promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large. Early interventions targeted toward disadvantaged children have much higher returns than later interventions such as reduced pupil-teacher ratios, public job training, convict rehabilitation programs, tuition subsidies, or expenditure on police. At current levels of resources, society overinvests in remedial skill investments at later ages and underinvests in the early years…. Although investments in older disadvantaged individuals realize relatively less return overall, such investments are still clearly beneficial. Indeed, the advantages gained from effective early interventions are sustained best when they are followed by continued high-quality learning experiences. The technology of skill formation shows that the returns on school investment and post-school investment are higher for persons with higher ability, where ability is formed in the early years. Stated simply, early investments must be followed by later investments if maximum value is to be realized.”


“Measures of Classroom Quality in Prekindergarten and Children’s Development of Academic, Language, and Social Skills”
Mashburn, Andrew J.; Pianta, Robert C.; Hamre, Bridget K.; Downer, Jason T.; Barbarin, Oscar A.; Bryant, Donna; Burchinal, Margaret; Early, Diane M.; Howes, Carollee. Child Development, Vol. 79, Issue 3, 732-749, May/June 2008.

Abstract: “This study examined development of academic, language, and social skills among 4-year-olds in publicly supported prekindergarten (pre-K) programs in relation to 3 methods of measuring pre-K quality, which are as follows: (a) adherence to 9 standards of quality related to program infrastructure and design, (b) observations of the overall quality of classroom environments, and (c) observations of teachers’ emotional and instructional interactions with children in classrooms. Participants were 2,439 children enrolled in 671 pre-K classrooms in 11 states. Adjusting for prior skill levels, child and family characteristics, program characteristics, and state, teachers’ instructional interactions predicted academic and language skills and teachers’ emotional interactions predicted teacher-reported social skills. Findings suggest that policies, program development, and professional development efforts that improve teacher-child interactions can facilitate children’s school readiness.”


“Early Childhood Education: Young Adult Outcomes From the Abecedarian Project”
Campbell, Frances A.; Ramey, Craig T.; Pungello, Elizabeth; Sparling, Joseph; Miller-Johnson, Shari. Applied Developmental Science, Vol. 6, Issue 1, 2002.

Abstract: “The high-risk infants who initially enrolled in the Abecedarian Project, a longitudinal prospective study of the benefits of early childhood educational intervention within a child care setting, were followed up as young adults (age 21 years). One hundred-eleven infants were in the original sample; 104 took part in the follow up. Treatment was provided in two phases: during preschool and in the primary grades. Participants received either both phases, one, but not both, or neither. Assignment to groups was random. Those in the preschool treatment group earned significantly higher scores on intellectual and academic measures as young adults, attained significantly more years of total education, were more likely to attend a four-year college, and showed a reduction in teenage pregnancy compared with preschool controls. Preschool treatment was associated with educationally meaningful effect sizes on reading and math skills that persisted into adulthood…. The positive findings with respect to academic skills and increased years of post-secondary education support policies favoring early childhood programs for poor children.”


Tags: children, youth, poverty

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