The evidence on state-funded preschool

The evidence of the effects of state-funded pre-kindergarten (preschool) programmes in the US was recently reviewed by a task force of scientists from the Brookings Institute and Duke University. These findings were released in a report called “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects”. Following the evidence review, the task force released a consensus statement outlining conclusions and recommendations about the effects of state-funded pre-kindergarten. According to the report:

  1. Greatest improvements at the end of the pre-kindergarten year are more often found for pupils from low-SES backgrounds or who are dual language learners than for their higher-SES and English-proficient peers.
  2. Not all pre-k programmes are equally effective, and this may be influenced by several factors. Positive influences include using evidence-based programmes that are well-implemented; utilising ongoing professional development and coaching for teachers; and promoting classrooms with predictable routines and positive, supportive pupil-teacher relationships.
  3. Pre-k environments are most effective when pupils’ individual abilities, knowledge and backgrounds are considered, and teaching strategies and content accordingly adjusted.
  4. Children who attend pre-k demonstrate more school readiness at the end of the year than those who do not, especially in the areas of literacy and numeracy.
  5. Long-term effects of pre-k in the later elementary (primary)years are inconclusive.
  6. More complete and reliable evidence is needed, during and after pre-k programmes, to create and sustain pre-kindergartners’ long-term gains.

The full report goes into more detail about the consensus statements, and discusses the results of the evidence with regards to funding, policy and other considerations.

Source: Puzzling it out: The current state of scientific knowledge on pre-kindergarten effects: A consensus statement (April 2017), Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, The Brookings Institution

Programme components and disadvantaged pupils

Research shows that pupils from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to attend pre-school or to have a home environment incorporating literacy and language activities than their less disadvantaged peers. As a result, children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to enter school with the social and academic skills needed to set them up for success. Jans Deitrichson and colleagues at the Danish National Centre for Social Research recently performed a meta-analysis aimed at determining what components within academic interventions are the most effective at improving the achievement of primary school students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.

A total of 101 studies performed between 2000–2014 were included in the meta-analysis. Seventy-six percent were randomised controlled trials and the rest were quasi-experimental studies. Studies had to target pupils from low socioeconomic backgrounds, utilise standardised test results in reading and maths as the outcome measures, and take place in OECD or EU countries, although most were in the US. They also had to contain information that allowed the researchers to calculate effect sizes.

The authors sorted each study’s academic intervention into “component categories” (the methods used). Examples include coaching/ mentoring of pupils, cooperative learning, incentives, small-group tutoring, or a combination of these or other methods. Analysis demonstrated that tutoring, feedback and progress monitoring, and cooperative learning were the components with the largest effect sizes. The authors stated that although the average effect sizes for these components were not large enough to close the achievement gap between high- and low-socioeconomic pupils, they certainly reduced it. They suggest that cost-effectiveness studies should be performed on these programmes to give policymakers and educators a fuller picture of programme benefits.

Source: Academic interventions for elementary and middle school students with low socioeconomic status: A systematic review and meta-analysis (January 2017), Review of Educational Research, Vol 87, Issue 2

Links between pre-school absenteeism and academic learning

A new study, published in Child Development, found that children in the US pre-school programme Head Start who missed 10% or more of the school year had fewer academic gains than their peers who attended pre-school more regularly.

Arya Ansari and Kelly M Purtell used data from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) 2009 cohort (n=2,842) to examine the effects of absenteeism among 3- and 4-year-olds on early academic learning. Their findings revealed that, on average, children missed eight days of the school year. However, 12% of children were chronically absent – defined as missing 10% of the school year or more – and missed an average of 22 days of school. Children who missed more days of school, especially those who were chronically absent, demonstrated fewer gains in maths and literacy during the pre-school year. For maths, this was equivalent to approximately two months of lost academic skill gains. In literacy the loss was three months.

The study also found that Black and Latino children were less likely to be absent than white children. Children from households with married parents were less likely to be absent than those from households without two parents. In addition, children were less likely to be absent when they were enrolled in classrooms that operate for more hours per week and in larger and bilingual classrooms. Children were more likely to be absent if their mother showed more depressive symptoms and was unemployed. The quality of interactions between teachers and children positively affected children’s development of literacy skills, and the benefits were roughly twice as large for children who were absent less often.

Source:  Absenteeism in Head Start and children’s academic learning (May 2017), Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.12800

Engaging dads in a parenting intervention improved outcomes

A parenting programme in which fathers engage with their children through reading was found to boost the fathers’ parenting skills while also improving the child’s school readiness and behaviour, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.

The randomised controlled trial, conducted by Anil Chacko and colleagues, evaluated the effects of Fathers Supporting Success in Preschoolers, an intervention that focuses on integrating parent training with shared book reading to improve outcomes among fathers and their pre-school children. For the study, 126 low-income fathers – the majority of whom spoke Spanish – and their children were recruited across three Head Start centres in New York City. The intervention included eight weekly sessions, each lasting 90 minutes. The effects of the programme on parenting skills, child behaviour and language, and outcomes for fathers including stress and depression were measured before and immediately after participation in the programme. Measures included observations by the researchers using a behavioural coding system that measures the quality of parent-child social interactions, reports from the fathers and standardised assessments of child language.

The study found that parenting behaviours, child behaviours and the language development of the children improved. Moderate effect sizes were found for observed positive parenting (+0.63) and for observed child problem behaviour (+0.34). Using the Preschool Language Scales (PLS-4) to measure language outcomes, effect sizes of +0.52 were reported for auditory comprehension and +0.51 for expressive language. Parental stress and depression effect sizes were insignificant. Overall, the findings suggest more than a 30% improvement in parenting and school readiness outcomes.

Source: Engaging fathers in effective parenting for preschool children using shared book reading: a randomized controlled trial (January 2017), Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology

One versus two years of ExCELL in preschool

While the effects of preschool programmes have often been studied, it is less common to find studies examining the effects of programme duration on student learning. Annemarie Hindman and Barbara Wasik from Temple University, Pennsylvania, examined the effects of providing one year versus two years of the teacher professional development programme Exceptional Coaching for Early Language and Literacy (ExCELL) on the language development and learning outcomes of three- and four-year-old children in the US preschool programme, Head Start.

ExCELL provides teachers with individualised coaching by providing a background in the concepts underlying preschoolers’ language and vocabulary development, evolving into ways to develop these skills in the classroom. Teachers are provided with curriculum materials and an academic year of month-long coaching, each month cycling through a group workshop, a coach modelling targeted techniques in the classroom, the teacher using these techniques independently, and finally the coach observing the teacher and providing feedback.

In the present study, 159 four-year-old children in Head Start experienced either one year (n=88), starting at age four, or two years (n=71), starting at age three, with teachers using ExCELL. Children were in 10 Head Start centres in the urban Northeastern United States in adjacent neighbourhoods with demographically similar populations. Almost all students and teachers were African-American and all were native English speakers.

At four years old, children were tested in the spring and autumn using standardised tests measuring vocabulary, sound awareness, and alphabet knowledge. Results showed that although the four-year-olds who had already received one year of the programme entered their second year with stronger vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and alphabet knowledge than their peers who had not yet experienced the programme, by the year’s end, these peers had caught up to them. The authors state that these findings suggest that ExCELL is most effectively taught in the second year of preschool.

Source: Is dosage important? Examining Head Start preschoolers’ language and literacy learning after one versus two years of ExCELL (2016), Early Childhood Development and Care

What counts for future success in maths?

Which preschool maths competencies are most important for later maths achievement? A new study in Early Childhood Research Quarterly attempts to answer this question for low-income and minority children.

The research looked at 781 children who completed the Research-based Early Mathematics Assessment (REMA) in preschool and a further maths assessment in fifth grade. The children came from diverse classrooms in New York and Boston, with 53% of the children African-American and 83% qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

Using state-defined preschool mathematics standards documents, the researchers classified the REMA into a number of domains of mathematical knowledge:

  • Counting and cardinality – basic counting (rote counting, number recognition, one-to-one correspondence) and advanced counting (cardinality, counting forward and back)
  • Patterning – extend and duplicate patterns
  • Geometry – identify, compare, and compose shapes
  • Measurement and data – recognize shapes and identify their attributes by measurement

All the domains were significantly predictive of later achievement, suggesting that children rely on multiple domains of early knowledge when developing later skills. However, counting and numeracy skills, particularly advanced counting skills, were most predictive of later achievement. Early numeracy was predictive of later mathematics achievement while also controlling measurement and data, geometry, and patterning. This suggests that, at least for this group of children, early numeracy was the most predictive of later mathematics ability.

Source: Which preschool mathematics competencies are most predictive of fifth grade achievement? (2016), Early Childhood Research Quarterly