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What We’re Reading: Elementary School Quality Matters

30 Aug 2018 by Allie Kallmann

Early childhood folks are a special breed. We know how great an impact our work can have (Perry Preschool Program! Abecedarian! Heckman!), and we’re proud of it. At the same time, we’re aware that when children leave our classrooms, we have no control over the rest of their educational experiences. The fadeout effect—when children’s gains from preschool diminish in elementary school—has shown up in several large studies, including the Head Start Impact Study and a randomized control trial in Tennessee.

It’s counterintuitive, and it’s troubling. Researchers and ECE advocates have suggested a number of potential reasons why this might be happening. Are children’s special needs identified? Is research accounting for the influence of poverty in development? Are early childhood programs starting too late? Just how good are these programs being studied, anyway? One recent article from UVA researchers looks at another possible cause: the quality of the elementary schools children attend.

Using data from the ECLS-K, researchers examined the academic achievement of elementary school students. We’ve blogged before about research using the ECLS-K, which is a huge, nationally-representative longitudinal dataset. It contains a lot of information about children’s backgrounds, academic achievement, social-emotional growth, relationships, and classroom and school environments. Because the dataset contains so much information, researchers are able to use a technique called propensity score matching to help control for the characteristics that might affect children’s likelihood to attend pre-K, the quality of their elementary school, or their achievement. This limits the chances that we’re comparing apples to oranges—even if they both attended preschool, a white child born to doctors in New York City is likely to have different opportunities than a dual-language learner in a single-parent home in rural Tennessee.

As expected, researchers found that children who attended preschool scored a little higher on kindergarten academic assessments than their peers (0.17 SD). In fact, they continued to do better through the end of 5th grade, but their gains faded out: by then, they were about 0.08 standard deviations ahead, which is a difference that’s considered trivial to small in educational research. However, the benefits of preschool differed based on the quality of the elementary school children attended. Children in low-quality elementary schools (e.g., those with higher teacher turnover, lower academic performance, and fewer instructional resources) showed the biggest relative drop, with basically all of the advantages of preschool eliminated by the end of fifth grade. Former preschool attendees in moderate-quality elementary schools showed a smaller decline, and those in high-quality elementary schools actually showed no relative losses. That means that researchers only saw preschool fadeout for children in low- and moderate-quality elementary schools.

This is a really important result. Early childhood education can be seen as the key to bright futures, and this demonstrates that it can make a persistent, real difference. However, it also points out that investing a lot of resources into one year is not a guarantee. It won’t deal with the elephant in the room: a little bit of preschool is not going to protect them from the risk of a struggling K-12 system that doesn’t effectively support all learners. As policymakers and school districts consider how to expand high-quality services for young children, they also need to create systems that ensure that they support these preschoolers to and through their educational trajectory.  

Citation: Ansari, A., & Pianta, R.C. (2018). The role of elementary school quality in the persistence of preschool effects. Children and Youth Services Review, 86. 120-127.

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