When Science Questions Preschool Effectiveness

Preschool Children

Researchers raise concerns about the efficacy of Early Care and Education (ECE) programs such as Pre-K and Head Start in a recent Policy Forum. They emphasize the mixed results of recent studies, including some negative impacts, and call for more rigorous research to ensure these programs can achieve long-term benefits, especially for disadvantaged children.

Evidence indicates varying success in current Early Care and Education programs, with some showing negative impacts, highlighting the necessity for rigorous research and improved program implementation.

Early care and education (ECE) programs – like Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) and Head Start – are widely regarded as effective public investments for reducing income- and race-based achievement gaps and helping children succeed in school with impacts extending well into adulthood. However, in a Policy Forum, Margaret Burchinal and colleagues present recent evidence suggesting that preschool impacts are not unequivocally positive and the science on the overall outcomes of these programs remains unsettled.

According to Burchinal et al., more rigorous research is needed to understand how to design early education programs that produce long-term positive outcomes, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. “We urge both the policy and research communities to take seriously the most rigorous evidence, regardless of the valence of the findings, to advance our models of development and intervention,” write the authors.

Research Findings and Implications

Here, Burchinal et al. provide a review of recent, rigorous randomized controlled studies that evaluated Head Start and local public Pre-K programs.

One study, which assessed the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K program (TNVPK) – a large state-funded pre-k program that enrolls roughly 25% of the state’s 4-year-olds – revealed negative impacts on academic and behavioral outcomes during elementary and middle school.

Another, the Head Start Impact Study, provided discouraging long-term results, finding almost no evidence of above-chance advantages for student attendees.

Contrasting Past and Present ECE Programs

Although the authors note that there is evidence of the potential for today’s ECE programs to accomplish their goals, the review indicates that some of today’s publicly funded ECE programs do not showing lasting positive effects for the students who participate in them, a conclusion that contrasts with the assumption that these programs always provide positive and beneficial outcomes. Burchinal et al. provide insight into why earlier ECE programs appeared to be more successful than today’s and highlight critical gaps in our understanding that must be addressed in order to develop programs and interventions that produce long-term positive outcomes for today’s children.

For more on this study, see Reassessing Early Education: Surprising Findings From a New Preschool Study.

Reference: “Unsettled science on longer-run effects of early education” by Margaret Burchinal, Anamarie Whitaker, Jade Jenkins, Drew Bailey, Tyler Watts, Greg Duncan and Emma Hart, 2 May 2024, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.adn2141

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