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.
On a hot summer day in July 2016, I had the good fortune of being the one not on vacation on our small policy and research team. Instead, I went to DC to serve as Teachstone’s representative for a convening of policymakers, researchers, and ECE practitioners. They were gathering to discuss if and how exemplary Head Start grantees might be identified for Leading by Exemplar, an initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and led by Bellwether Education Partners.
Decades of evidence indicate that high-quality early childhood education positively affects children. Yet studies reveal that too few programs implement high-quality programming. To date, improvement efforts have primarily focused on what occurs within the classroom. The Ounce of Prevention Fund (Ounce), in partnership with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium), strives to broaden the focus of improvement efforts beyond the classroom to organizational conditions that support teachers and the relationships among staff, children, and families.
If you’ve been following the news lately, a lot is going on in North Carolina for young children and families! Leaders across the state—from businesses to state government to county municipalities—are leveraging partnerships that use research-based assessment and professional development models (like CLASS) to guarantee more of the state’s youngest residents have access to the high quality care they need and deserve.