Preschool program bridges the achievement gap, study shows

( —Researchers at the John W. Gardner Center provide several years of data to support the benefits of high-quality early childhood education.

Low-income elementary school students who participated in a San Mateo County preschool program in California performed as well as—and at times better than—their peers who, for the most part, attended private preschool, a new Stanford study reveals.

The study, released late last year by the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, has gained new urgency in light of President 's proposal to expand . The study followed three cohorts of graduates from a , called Preschool for All, as they enrolled in kindergarten and continued into the first and second grades in the Redwood City School District. After adjusting the data to control for differences in student characteristics, researchers found that children who participated in Preschool for All matched or outperformed their peers in five report card subjects—math, listening/speaking, reading, writing and work study skills—as well as on standardized tests in math and English Language Arts.

Preschool for All was a five-year funded by the First 5 San Mateo County Commission and administered by the San Mateo County Office of Education from 2004 to 2009.

The program provided free, high-quality preschool to children living within the boundaries of the Redwood City School District. It targeted three- and four-year olds who have traditionally lacked access to quality preschool—students who are low-income, Latino, English language learners, and who have a parent who did not complete high school. It was part of a statewide initiative led by First 5 California that provided matching funds for local Preschool for All programs. To ensure program quality, classrooms were capped at 24 children; teachers were required to have a college degree and special training in early childhood education; and curricula were designed to address the students' individual learning styles, as well as social and cultural influences.

"Preschool for All targeted a less advantaged group of kids," said Kara Dukakis, associate director of the Gardner Center. "Our findings show that the program helped to level the playing field for these students and, at times, accelerated them beyond the level of those who did not attend it."

Academic gains were even greater for those who participated in the program for two years instead of just one year. Those who began Preschool for All as three-year olds showed higher adjusted proficiency rates in some subjects than those who joined at age four.

"Very few studies look at the dosage issue of high-quality preschool programs," Dukakis said. "This shows that it does make a difference for kids to have two years of preschool, especially for at-risk students."

The study found that children from the highest-risk groups particularly benefitted from the program. Preschool for All students who later took part in the federal Free and Reduced Price Lunch program at their elementary school had higher adjusted proficiency rates than comparable non-participants in many of the five report card subjects from kindergarten through second grade. Additionally, children in nearly all of the highest-need groups—including Latino students, English language learners and participants in the Free and Reduced Price Lunch program—exhibited stronger work-study skills, particularly in kindergarten and first grade, than students from similar backgrounds who did not attend Preschool for All.

The report builds upon the Gardner Center's 2011 analysis, which followed three cohorts of Preschool for All participants, 876 of whom moved on to kindergarten in the Redwood City School District. The updated analysis tracked 780 of those students into first grade and 467 through second grade. To examine how well the children fared after preschool, researchers used longitudinal data through the Gardner Center's specially designed Youth Data Archive, which brings together data from institutions that do not typically share such information. In this instance, Gardner Center researchers linked student records from the three cohorts in the county-run program to their kindergarten, first, and second grade records in the Redwood City School District. The study then compared these students' report cards and standardized test outcomes with their peers who did not participate in Preschool for All.

Other findings of the report include:

  • Preschool for All students who were Latino, Free and Reduced Price Lunch program participants and in special education had higher adjusted math scores in the California Standards Test (CST) than students meeting the same criteria who did not attend Preschool for All.
  • Preschool for All students who participated in the Free and Reduced Price Lunch program had higher adjusted CST scores in English language arts than students in the lunch program who did not attend Preschool for All.
  • Students who participated in Preschool for All for two years had higher adjusted CST scores in math than non-participants.
Policy implications

The study comes on the heels of President Obama's proposal to make high-quality preschool available to every four-year old in the United States. Gardner Center executive director Amy Gerstein noted that early learning programs such as Preschool for All have been losing state funding, and she hopes that these longitudinal findings will help educators and advocates build political support to expand and strengthen early learning programs in San Mateo County, as well as across the state.

"Preschool for All programs in general—and certainly Preschool for All San Mateo—are high-quality programs, by design," said Gerstein. "The fact that the program was high quality made a big difference here."

Jeanie McLoughlin, former director of Preschool for All San Mateo, said that the program findings were particularly affirming.

"By following local kids in a local district, we could see and validate that this design worked," said McLoughlin, who currently directs Early Learning Support Services at the San Mateo County Office of Education. "Preschool for All did exactly what we hoped it would do and we were able to verify that. It's really gratifying. The study tells us that if and when we do go back to do more preschool investments, the interventions need to be of very high quality."

The researchers say that their longitudinal findings can help inform the national conversation about the benefits of the pre-K to third grade model, which is designed to sustain the academic momentum that underserved students gain over their entire elementary school experience from attending preschool.

"The pre-K to third approach is manifested in high-quality instruction to assist through the transition, and it is very intentional," explained Dukakis. "It is also manifested through collaborative efforts between practitioners, teachers and administrators in early childhood education programs and elementary school.

"There is a very strong movement in California and across the country to not just look at the important transition from preschool to kindergarten, but to really look at the transition from pre-K to third grade," she added. "We want the effect of high-quality preschool programs to last as far forward as possible. The third grade is a critical juncture as far as child development and reading levels."

With continued community interest and more years of data, researchers said it would be possible to complete a multi-year study on the for All participants, following them with the Youth Data Archive through elementary and middle school.

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