Friday, January 15, 2010

National Study Belies Advantages of Pre-School

We’re justifiably proud of our extensive preschool programs in New Jersey. Out-going Education Commissioner Lucille Davy has labeled preschool availability to poor children the “game-changer,” and accepted wisdom is that if you offer full-day preschool services, long-term academic achievement follows. However, a new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Head Start Impact Study,” finds that while student achievement increases in kindergarten for children who receive preschool services, “the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole.”

What does that mean for N.J.’s assumption that preschool makes all the difference in long-term academic achievement for children? Are we backing a flawed strategy?


Anne Fernald said...

Don't forget that preschools support working families. Any strategy that allows two parents to work, knowing their kids are in a safe environment is a good one. This is the 21st century. All adults work now--except a very few of the affluent--government needs to help us keep our families safe and strong while we work.

Bruce said...

I urge you to take a quick look at the much abbreviated summary of the study methods:
The Head Start Impact Study was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 84 grantee/delegate agencies and included nearly 5,000 newly entering, eligible 3- and 4-year-old children who were randomly assigned to either: (1) a Head Start group that had access to Head Start program services or (2) a control group that did not have access to Head Start, but could enroll in other early childhood programs or non-Head Start services selected by their parents.

This in mind, this study has little bearing on NJ preschool effectiveness. Rather, it asks whether kids who had access to Head Start services showed greater school readiness than other kids, where other kids may have enrolled in pre-school, among a variety of other options. It tries to isolate the effects of Head Start related services over a random assortment of other family behaviors/child treatments. In my mind, not the best possible design, but perhaps a socially responsible design because it would be wrong to outright deprive the control group of participating in any pre-school services.

The executive summary notes: The findings cannot be directly compared to more narrowly focused studies of other early childhood programs. (p. iii).

Also, the fact that positive readiness effects fade by the end of first grade is complicated by the fact that the study (based on my quick read of it) did not account for differences in the quality of first grade experiences (school/teacher quality).