Early childhood education requires excellent pre-kindergarten and better primary teaching

Photo: Joe Jiang. Creative Commons.

Doubts from Tennessee about pre-K education focus attention on identifying best practice and improving teaching up to third grade in public schools.

We thought we knew how to revive the American Dream. The United States could once more be the land of opportunity, where anyone, even those from the humblest beginnings, could reach the top. A big part of the answer was early childhood education in general and pre-kindergarten (pre-K) education in particular.

Everyone seemed to agree that getting children – especially the poorest – ready to learn at primary school was the way to ensure that each had a fair chance of succeeding in the long run. Early demonstration programs documented impressive improvements in children’s learning; later, those children grew into teenagers who were more likely to complete school and go to college. A tough start in life needn’t handicap early learning or harm lifelong prospects – and the costs seemed manageable for the public purse.

Then the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K study threw such confidence into doubt. Pre-K did indeed prepare children better for formal schooling, found a thorough evaluation of the state-wide program, published in 2015. But by first grade, those children had worse attitudes toward school, poorer working habits, and inferior academic outcomes than those who hadn’t attended pre-K. Was Tennessee’s medicine actually making the patient sick?

The Tennessee research wasn’t the first to question whether the benefits of pre-K education were long-lasting. Many studies of scaled-up programs have found that initial improvements faded over time. But this was the first high-quality pre-K study to identify negative outcomes at the primary school level.

Developing a consensus statement on pre-K

Taking a deep collective breath, some of the world’s most respected social scientists gathered to seek consensus on what was really known about the effectiveness of pre-K education, half a century after Lyndon Johnson began a financial commitment to early childhood programs that now cost US federal and state governments around $39.5 billion a year. State funded pre-K, the most rapidly expanding type of program, currently serves over 30 percent of the nation’s 4-year-olds and 5 percent of 3-year-olds in 43 states and the District of Columbia.

“Identifying what works well in pre-K education is more important than ever, because the policy cupboard to secure opportunity for disadvantaged children is looking increasingly bare.”

Identifying what works well in pre-K education is arguably more important now than when it was first heralded as a panacea back in the 1960s and ’70s, for two reasons. First, the policy cupboard to secure opportunity for all is looking increasingly bare: pre-K education has been considered one of the more achievable, cost-effective options. Second, failure to equalize educational opportunity threatens to have an even greater social impact than it did 50 years ago. The increasing sophistication of well-paid jobs today makes it imperative that children’s backgrounds don’t inhibit their learning.

Things have changed so much since I was a kid. When I grew up in Michigan, kids leaving high school could take a job with General Motors that offered them a reasonable career:  it paid for a house, a car and raising children – the American dream. Some of these jobs still exist, but far more good jobs now require a good education and cognitive skills. If we can’t figure out how to prepare children from poorer backgrounds to learn well and achieve in this changing world, they’re very likely stuck where they started – just like they are now.

Consider college graduation: research shows that if low-income kids can get themselves through a four-year degree, they move up and pursue the American dream. But lots simply aren’t equipped for college, and most don’t even start. Many of those who do start don’t finish, paying the price for the rest of their lives.

pre-k education
Photo: mekong_virus. Creative Commons.

Two common research challenges highlighted by pre-K education

What did our gathering of experts agree? Our consensus verdict has highlighted two challenges that commonly afflict the social sciences. The first is the complexity of people’s lives. A single intervention, however good, is unlikely to make a huge long-term difference unless it links well with what happens before and afterward. Lasting change is usually attributable to a string of interlocking, mutually reinforcing factors.

“Tennessee didn’t destroy the dream offered by pre-K education. But it is a wakeup call to make sure the best of pre-K practice can be delivered at scale. Then it’s up to the rest of children’s education to amplify the benefits that pre-K brings.”

With this in mind, we point out that the Tennessee research should cast a spotlight not only on pre-K itself, but also on what happens to children both before and after the pre-K year, especially as they move into formal schooling. It demands that we question how primary education, particularly up to third grade, builds on – or possibly undermines – strengths that children typically acquire in pre-K.

Identify “effectiveness factors” in pre-K

The second challenge facing social scientists is that a good pilot program doesn’t guarantee success when it’s rolled out widely. The Achilles’ heel of the evidence-based movement is figuring out how to replicate on a grand scale what evidently worked so well at a smaller, local level. This points Tennessee’s spotlight towards what precisely is happening in scaled-up programs, many of which vary greatly in quality compared with the demonstration programs. We need to identify and implement the all-important “effectiveness factors” – the must-have ingredients in successful pre-K programs – that would allow other children, teachers and programs to replicate the best results across the United States.

Improve primary curriculum

I would draw attention to the fact that Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s education commissioner, has risen to the first challenge concerning primary education. She declared that Tennessee needed to look at how public schools can take better advantage of what pre-K is delivering – children who are more ready for learning than they would otherwise be.

Across America, there is a lot of work to be done on developing good curriculum in public schools for children from kindergarten to third grade. Our consensus statement calls for “well-implemented, evidence-based curriculum.” Coaching may be needed for teachers dealing with children who have a huge diversity of knowledge, skills and talent – not least because some have had pre-K education while others have not.

One good bet for powering up learning in these years, we conclude, is classrooms that provide individualized instructional content and strategies. To achieve that, highly skilled teachers are required. And teachers who are not as skilled, especially those with little background in teaching at the pre-K level, can be greatly helped by coaching from experienced and skilled teachers.

Challenging the education doomsayers

The great scholars in this field don’t endorse the doomsayers who would dismiss pre-K education as a waste of resources. Far from it. Current spending looks about right – and new spending on pre-K is justified as long as the results are carefully evaluated. Tennessee didn’t destroy the dream offered by pre-K education. But it is a wakeup call. We must make sure that the best of pre-K practice is identified so it can be delivered at scale. Then it’s up to the rest of children’s education to amplify the benefits that pre-K brings.

Policy Implications

State governments should take two actions: 1) improving their current pre-K programs through monitoring and experimentation; and 2) continuing to expand funding as their programs improve.

Practical Implications

Practitioners, especially program directors, should participate directly in experiments to increase pre-K impacts through better teacher training and coaching, developing effective curriculum, and working with school systems to help improve the transition from pre-K to kindergarten and the early elementary grades.

Ron Haskins

Ron Haskins

Senior Fellow and Cabot Family Chair in Economic Studies, at the Brookings Institution, where he co-directs the Center on Children and Families, USA.

Full profile
Posted on:

Original research and references

  1. Deborah A Phillips et al. Puzzling It Out: The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects: A Consensus Statement Brookings, 2017