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A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Problems with Recent Study on Pre-K and Full-Day K

Published:  November 28, 2011

A report from the Center for Public Education that compares the benefits of pre-kindergarten to full-day kindergarten is causing some early education experts to worry that policy makers will make hasty decisions based on thin and flawed data. 

We here at Early Ed Watch have been watching with concern too, especially as the report has been widely circulated without any added context throughout the early education community. We encourage school boards and district leaders to rely on fuller sources of information – especially local data on the needs of their student populations – when deciding how to fund early education programs.

The report, “Starting Out Right: Pre-K and Kindergarten,” was published last month by the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association. Using data from a study that tracked children from kindergarten through third grade, the report showed that children who have pre-K plus a half-day of kindergarten do better on third-grade reading tests than children who have only had full-day kindergarten without any pre-K.  Jim Hull, the report’s author, said he examined different combinations of early education offerings because school boards have been asking which one is worth preserving or, if possible, expanding, in an era of strapped budgets.

But several researchers stress that the data is unreliable because it is partly based on information reported by parents and fails to account for vast differences in the types of programs that children attended before entering kindergarten.  The concern is that the report’s findings may be less a reflection of the significance of the “pre-K + half-day kindergarten” combination than it is a reflection of parents’ ability and desire to enroll their children in a center-based program before arriving in kindergarten.

“They are selecting on parents who can afford to send their children to preschool and access those arrangements and who don’t send their children to full-day kindergarten,” said Steve Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Another problem, Barnett said, is that full-day kindergarten is often offered in impoverished school districts, and the concentrations of poverty of those districts may be having an impact on children’s third-grade test scores.  “It’s not a careful study of this issue,” he said.

The CPE study does say that the “best” option is not to choose at all – that children who experienced both pre-K and full-day kindergarten showed the highest levels of achievement.  This is in keeping with other research pointing to the positive effects of early education and the significance of receiving a relatively high “dosage,” or length of time, in those learning environments.

“We in no way wanted to put out there that policymakers should reduce full-day to half-day kindergarten just to include pre-K,” said Hull,  a policy analyst at CPE and a contributor to The Edifier, an interesting blog that frequently delves into new data sources. “We wanted to reiterate that pre-K should be a powerful force in any early childhood educational program to increase reading achievement.”

“It’s about adding pre-K, not about reducing full-day K,” Hull continued. “We would never recommend that.”

The data in the report comes from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Kindergarten (ECLS-K), conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, which interviewed parents of 21,500 kindergarten students in 1998 and later collected information on children’s reading skills through a test administered in the third grade.

In addition to data supplied by Head Start centers, much of the pre-kindergarten data used in the report derive from mothers’ reports and include a wide range of possibilities (“daycare,” “nursery school,” “preschool” or a “pre-kindergarten program”). 

By separating out parents who enrolled their children in one of these options from mothers who did not, the study may be showing the difference between mothers who have jobs or mothers whose lives are stable enough to enroll their children in a program at age 4, compared to families who do not have those luxuries. 

One hint of this possibility comes in the data on children with mothers who only have a high-school degree. Among those children, the report states, there was no difference in reading scores. Whether attending pre-K plus a half-day of kindergarten or attending a full-day of kindergarten, children with less educated mothers attained similar reading scores.

“Unfortunately, this study isn't really an adequate answer to a very important (and timely) policy question,” said Kristie Kauerz, program director of PreK-3rd education at the University of Washington and Harvard University. “The data set used in the analysis wasn't intended to answer questions such as this; and the analysis itself is oversimplified (and biased) in its attention to both child development and the range of options policymakers can and should consider.”

Over the past decade, Kauerz has conducted research on child care, pre-kindergarten, and full-day kindergarten programs.  Kauerz said that the report appears biased toward pre-K in part because it highlights other studies that show the gains that can come from pre-K without also showcasing research on the gains from full-day kindergarten.

“I believe our field needs to become more adept at thinking about the translation from research to policy and not jump on every report that comes along that offers an ‘answer’ to such important questions,” Kauerz said.

Cathy Grace, director of early childhood policy for the Children’s Defense Fund, which has started to highlight disparities in children’s access to kindergarten, says she is concerned that policymakers will rely too heavily on data from the late 1990s that doesn’t take into account the changes in education since then – particularly the recent adoption in 44 states of common standards that students are expected to meet starting in kindergarten. If children are given only a half-day of kindergarten (which may be as short as 2-and-a-half hours), it will be difficult for teachers to help them build the early literacy and math skills that they should be mastering by the end of the school year. Worse, teachers may resort to inappropriate teaching methods -- such as memorization and drilling -- instead of giving children the time for playful, hands-on activities to help them build those skills.

Another limitation of the ECLS-K dataset is that it doesn’t delve into differences in kindergarten offerings.  Because kindergarten is highly variable – not quite as variable as pre-K or childcare, but still nowhere near as stable as first through twelfth grade – children in some places may be enrolled in “full-day” kindergarten when actually they are only taught by certified teachers for the first part of the day.  Except in the few states that require districts to offer full-day kindergarten, the definition of a full day is left up to school districts, some of which may require parents to pay for the latter half of the day if they want their children to attend until the bell rings for the other grades.  And six states do not require districts to offer kindergarten at all. (See Kauerz's recent report for more.)

Pre-K programs, as many in the early childhood community know well, are also highly variable, with some fully funded through school districts and many others not paid for with public dollars at all, leaving parents to find a way to cover the costs on their own. They may run for a few hours a day, or they may last for a full school day.  The CPE report  didn’t include information on  how long the children were enrolled each day in those programs because, as Hull explained, the data was not detailed enough for him to be able to make distinctions between half-day and full-day programs.

Kauerz suggests that school board leaders take a deep look at the needs within their district before making decisions about cutting full-day kindergarten or pre-K. Disadvantaged children, especially, can benefit greatly from both, and districts may want to frame their policies to ensure that education dollars are aimed at the children who need them most.

Barnett agrees.  “The bigger problem,” he said, “is that people get into this box – we can’t afford full-day K and preschool, so what should we do?”

“What about the way you spend all of your Title I money?” Barnett asked. “What about the way you spend all the PreK-12 funding? What about moving beyond the preK-12 budget and saying, what we ought to do is reduce our spending on prisons? So instead of shortening the amount of time in preschools, why don’t we reduce the prison sentences of non-violent offenders and use the savings to make this choice [to support early education] and help keep people out of prisons?”

These are exactly the right kind of questions to be asking. The fact that school districts are thinking about cutting either pre-K or full-day kindergarten programs should be heard as an alarm going off – a warning of short-term thinking that could lead to more costly remedial education down the road.

At the Early Education Initiative, we have promoted a much more seamless view of education in the early years (see our report, A Next Social Contract for the Primary Years of Education). We see huge value in providing high-quality pre-K starting at age 3, continuing with high-quality full-day kindergarten and ensuring that the instruction in the first through third grades is aligned and robust enough to give children a solid foundation in reading, math and social-emotional development.  We know policymakers have tough choices to make with dwindling education dollars, but by putting resources at the earliest end of the education spectrum instead of chopping holes in it, educators can be freed up in later grades to focus on college-preparatory instruction instead of remediating struggling children and constantly playing catch up.

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