Several prominent education and political bloggers have recently argued that implementing high-quality pre-K on a large scale is not a “proven” solution, but rather is hard to do. Kevin Carey of Education Sector argued on December 6 that high-quality pre-k is not a “proven “ solution because the research evidence for “robust long-term effects mostly relies on “small localized pre-K programs”. Sara Mead of Bellwether Education Partners said that “delivering quality public services for children, of any sort, at scale is HARD, and getting to quality at scale in some of these services – particularly health care and child welfare services – is probably a lot harder than fixing the K-12 system.” Matt Yglesias of the Center for American Progress argued that “proving high-quality preschool on a mass scale isn’t some kind of easy to implement alternative to the tricky task of providing high-quality elementary school on a mass scale.”
As these arguments suggest, part of the concern of these bloggers is the politics of K-12 education reforms. The concern is that groups opposed to some K-12 education reforms may use pre-K or other services to children as an argument against education reforms. If child outcomes can be dramatically improved via large-scale pre-K or other solutions that are more straightforward than K-12 reforms, perhaps these easier solutions should be preferred.
I certainly agree that the quality of pre-K is important. In chapter 5 of my book, Investing in Kids, I show that variations in pre-K quality make an enormous difference in the local economic development benefits of pre-K programs. For example, feasible variations in pre-K class size can alter economic development benefits by over 30 percent. In later posts in this blog, I will explore some of the effects of various features of pre-K quality on program effectiveness.
However, I think that these bloggers have overstated their case. Although there are some challenges to ensuring pre-K quality, the evidence suggests that it is quite doable for a state or school district to achieve quality in pre-K on a large scale, IF it is willing to spend the needed resources per child and adopt reasonable program design standards. Pre-K is a program that your mythical “average American state” or “average American school district” can implement in a quality way on a large scale.
The evidence on the long-term effectiveness of pre-K goes beyond small “hothouse” programs such as the Perry Preschool program in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Long-term effectiveness is also shown for the Chicago Child-Parent Center program. This was a large scale program run by Chicago Public Schools.
Furthermore, programs that are similar to CPC have been run in a number of states, and have shown short-run effectiveness. William Gormley’s studies of Oklahoma’s near-universal pre-K program suggest that it significantly improves kindergarten readiness. The National Institute for Early Education Research has done some studies of pre-K programs in a variety of states that also show evidence of short-run effectiveness. These studies all use what is called “regression discontinuity” analysis to measure program effectiveness. “Regression discontinuity” analysis is considered the next best thing to random assignment experimentation in measuring a program’s effects.
These state programs evaluated by Gormley and NIEER are generally run at a large scale, and are run by “ordinary” school districts or other agencies, not in some extraordinary way monitored by researchers. Of course, this short-run effectiveness does not prove long-run effectiveness. However, the short-term results are favorable enough and similar enough to the CPC program that it is reasonable that these programs will have long-run effects.
It is not surprising that pre-K helps improve child outcomes in a way that can be straightforwardly implemented. Pre-K, if run at appropriate class sizes, and with appropriately skilled teachers and a good curriculum, adds additional learning time. We know that one reform that works in education is adding more “time on task”. Pre-K is one straightforward way of doing so.
None of this logically implies that K-12 education reforms aren’t also needed. It would be a shame if the need for pre-K was used to argue against K-12 education reforms. Indeed, K-12 education reforms may help the effectiveness of pre-K and other early childhood programs. For example, it has been argued by Ellen Galinsky that part of the success of the Abecedarian program (a full-time child care and pre-K program from birth to age 5) was its location in Chapel Hill, which had a good K-12 system that could help follow through on the boost provided by the Abecedarian program. In sum, high-quality pre-K and K-12 education reforms can complement each other.