Latest Debate on Pre-K Ignores the Impact of High-Quality Curricula and Aligned PD

New America

Decades of research have found that children who attend pre-K arrive at kindergarten with stronger academic skills than those who do not. A handful of experimental studies have even found that positive impacts of some pre-K models last into adolescence and adulthood, improving high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

Yet, critics argue that much of this evidence is old and that the impacts of modern-day programs are both much smaller and unlikely to be sustained across time. They point to recent studies of universal public pre-K investments in Tennessee and Georgia finding that initial benefits of these programs on academic skills quickly faded, with pre-K attendees performing slightly worse on standardized tests than their peers by elementary and middle school. This pattern has fueled an ongoing discourse about the contemporary value of investments in early childhood education and how to identify and implement more effective pre-K instructional models.

But this discussion ignores the large and rigorous body of evidence we do have on what works to strengthen pre-K quality. Numerous studies have found that the field’s best bet is to implement evidence-based curricula that explicitly target specific learning domains like math, language, literacy, and social-emotional skills, following a pre-specified scope and sequence, supported by training and coaching aligned to those curricula. Researchers have consistently found that classrooms implementing these models not only have higher quality than classrooms implementing “global” or “whole child” curricula, but also do a much better job at boosting children’s academic skills. Importantly, the programs studied in Tennessee and Georgia did not implement evidence-based curricula, choosing instead to use “whole child” models with limited evidence of effectiveness.....

.....Recent evidence shows that investments in domain-specific curricula coupled with aligned professional development may help address concerns about pre-K fadeout. For example, beginning in 2014 researchers from MDRC (with funding from Overdeck Family Foundation as well as others) conducted a randomized controlled trial evaluating the impacts of the domain-specific Building Blocks pre-K math curriculum in New York City universal pre-K sites. Teachers received substantial training and regular coaching on how to implement the curriculum. One group of schools also implemented a version of Building Blocks during kindergarten to align instruction across grades. The study found that this multi-year approach improved children’s math skills at the end of kindergarten—with an impact equivalent to four months of learning—and also had sustained positive effects on math and literacy standardized test scores in third grade.....

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