Washington, D.C. – High-quality preschool programs can boost school readiness for both poor and middle-class children, according to researchers at Georgetown University. Their study, published in the journal Science on June 27, found substantial gains in cognitive skills for four-year-olds enrolled in school-based prekindergarten programs and Head Start programs in Tulsa, Okla.
The findings could influence policy and funding decisions across the country as many states consider expanding or restructuring their preschool programs, researchers say.
“The children in Tulsa’s pre-K and Head Start programs experienced substantial gains in pre-reading, pre-writing and pre-math skills above and beyond those that otherwise occur through aging,” says William T. Gormley, Jr., lead author of the study, university professor and co-director of the Center for Research on Children in the U.S. (CROCUS) at Georgetown University. “We found that negative effects of family and environmental risk factors can be lessened by a strong preschool program.”
Children who participated in the school-based pre-K program experienced gains of nine months in pre-reading skills, seven months in pre-writing skills and five months in pre-math skills, relative to their peers. Meanwhile, children who participated in the Head Start program experienced gains of six months in pre-reading skills, three months in pre-writing skills, and five months in pre-math schools, relative to their peers.
According to the Georgetown researchers, both programs are considered high in quality, but the school-based program devotes more time to practicing letters and sounds and less time to fantasy play than the Head Start program. These differences in time allocation, the researchers say, help to explain differences in outcomes. Differences in time devoted to math were not associated with different test outcomes.
Gormley and his co-authors – Deborah Phillips, co-director of CROCUS and a psychology professor at Georgetown, and Ted Gayer, an associate professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute – also found that pre-K participation and Head Start participation were more powerful predictors of certain test outcomes than gender, free lunch eligibility, a mother’s education or whether the biological father lives at home.
“In a world where so many children are at risk, it is comforting to know that early childhood education can make such a big difference for short-term test-scores,” says Gormley. “The cumulative effects of family and environmental risk factors are daunting, but their negative impact can be muted substantially by participation in a high-quality early childhood education program.”
Oklahoma’s state-funded pre-K program has generated attention because it is universal, is based in the school system, reaches a higher percentage of 4-year-olds than any other state pre-K program and channels aid to local school districts, which are free to run full-day programs, half-day programs or both.
The researchers also report that Oklahoma’s pre-K program has relatively high standards compared with those of other states and offers relatively high pay and benefits to well-qualified teachers. Similarly, the Community Action Project of Tulsa County, whose Head Start program serves the largest number of children in Tulsa, is eligible for state funding. Its teachers meet the same standards as their Tulsa Public Schools counterparts and receive similar pay.
The researchers examined the results of three subtests of the Woodcock-Johnson Achievement Test which when taken at or before school entry help to predict later scholastic achievement, according to previous research. Test scores of children who attended the pre-K program and were entering kindergarten were compared with those of children entering the pre-K program. Similarly, test scores of children who attended the Head Start program and were entering kindergarten were compared with those children entering the program. The researchers controlled for the students’ age and other demographic characteristics.
Since 2001, Gormley has directed an evaluation of Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program, focusing on the effectiveness of the Tulsa Public Schools pre-K program in promoting school readiness. Results of that evaluation have appeared in the Policy Studies Journal (February 2005), the Journal of Human Resources (Summer 2005) and Developmental Psychology (November 2005).
This research was supported by grants from the Foundation for Child Development, the Spencer Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the A.L. Mailman Family Foundation. For additional information on the Oklahoma project, see www.crocus.georgetown.edu.
About Georgetown University
Georgetown University is the oldest and largest Catholic and Jesuit university in America, founded in 1789 by Archbishop John Carroll. Georgetown today is a major student-centered, international, research university offering respected undergraduate, graduate and professional programs in Washington, DC, Doha, Qatar and around the world. For more information about Georgetown University, visit www.georgetown.edu.