Research on preschool: Setting the record straight

President Obama at a preschool in Georgia
President Obama at a preschool in Georgia

Now that President Obama has proposed a new initiative to broaden preschool programs, the debate about the value of early childhood education has gotten a lot louder. To help sort out what is true and what isn’t, W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, has just released a report that details what the best research says about early education — and what it doesn’t.

In the report, called “Getting the Facts Right on Pre-K and the President’s Pre-K Proposal,”  Barnett says that Obama’s proposal draws on valid research and that critics have misinterpreted research to attack it. The report, which can be found in full here, asks and answers four key questions. Here are the questions and excerpted answers:

Question # 1. Do the effects of high-quality preschool programs persist or fade out
by third grade?

…The most recent and comprehensive metaanalysis published in the peer-reviewed literature summarizes the results of 123 studies conducted in the United States since 1960 (Camilli, Vargas, Ryan, & Barnett, 2010). The studies included examined the effects of large-scale public programs as well as small-scale programs. The researchers found that although there was some decline in effects after children entered school, on average effects did not disappear and remained substantial throughout the school years …. Cognitive gains from preschool programs are larger when
programs focus on intentional teaching, small group learning, and individualized teaching one-on-one (Camilli et al., 2010)….

 

Question #2. What is the evidence regarding the President’s statement that “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on”?

The one study most relevant to President’s statement is the Chicago Longitudinal Study which reported a $7.14 to $1 benefit-cost ratio (Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, & Mann, 2002). The Chicago Child Parent Centers (CPCs) were highly similar to current state pre-K programs in design and cost, and they incorporated the features of high-quality programs listed by the President’s proposal. The CPCs served more recent and broadbased (though low-income) populations on a large scale and were operated by Chicago public schools. It is notable that the estimated effects of the CPCs on achievement at kindergarten entry are very similar in size to those found for Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program. In the context of the larger literature that links initial and later effects, it is reasonable to draw inferences from the Chicago study regarding the economic benefits of Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program. However, this requires more than simply applying the CPC benefits estimates to Oklahoma without adjustments, and, as discussed   below, more recent estimates of the CPCs’ benefits are highly relevant.

 

The $7 to $1 figure is prominently featured in the abstract of the Chicago benefit-cost analysis cited above so it is hard to see how critics of the President’s pre-K proposal could have missed it. Perhaps they missed it because later follow-ups produced higher estimates of the return that are about $11 to $1 (Reynolds, Temple, White, Ou, &
Robertson, 2011). Thus, the President did not mechanistically apply the Chicago figure to his proposal to claim that every dollar invested in pre-K would produce the same benefits as the CPCs. He claimed a substantially smaller benefit. As discussed in the remainder of this section, his claim is not mechanistic and does not depend on the Chicago Longitudinal study alone….

 

Question #3. Does high-quality pre-K benefit most children or only disadvantaged
children, and which is more effective, a targeted program or universal pre-K?

Generally, studies in the United States and abroad (where universal programs have a longer history) find that preschool education has larger benefits for disadvantaged
children, but that high-quality programs still have substantive benefits for other children (Barnett, 2008; Burger, 2010). Rigorous studies of universal pre-K in Oklahoma and elsewhere find substantial effects that are not dramatically smaller for higher income children than for others (Gormley, Gayer, Phillips, & Dawson, 2005; Wong, Cook, Barnett & Jung, 2008). A particularly creative recent U.S. study uses twins to identify environmental effects on achievement (Tucker-Drob, 2012). This twins study finds positive impacts from attending preschool at age 4 across most of the socio-economic spectrum with effects declining gradually as socio-economic status increases….

 

Question #4. Can large-scale public programs produce substantive long-term gains for children, and how effective are existing programs including Head Start?

Although it is difficult to balance the need to develop and maintain program quality with the imperative to serve very large numbers of children, it can be done. The recent metaanalysis discussed above summarized results from studies of large-scale public programs as well as smaller, highly intensive programs, as have traditional reviews (Barnett, 1995; Barnett, 2008a; Burger, 2010). It is simply not true that large-scale public programs have failed to produce meaningful short- and long-term results.

 

It is true that large-scale public programs have tended to produce smaller effects than the best known small-scale programs. The most obvious reason for this is that the large-scale public programs have been less intensive and less well funded. No large-scale public program has ever had the funds to replicate the highly intensive Perry Preschool Program (with one highly qualified teacher for every six children). A reasonable conclusion from the research is that underfunded programs with low standards produce few significant benefits (Barnett & Nores, in press; Ruhm & Waldfogel, 2011). In contrast, higher quality large-scale public preschool programs have produced substantive long-term gains (Barnett & Nores, in press; Melhuish et al., 2012). Examples of positive long-term impacts from large-scale public programs are not restricted to high-income countries. Rigorous studies in Latin America find that providing public preschool education on a
large scale has increased test scores through third grade, decreased school failure, increased educational attainment, and improved attention, class participation, and
discipline (Berlinski, Galiani, & Gertler, 2009)….

 

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 28, 2013