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We need more evidence in order to create effective pre-K programs

Brookings |  Dale C. Farran | 25 February 2016 

Executive Summary

The proposition that expanding pre-K will improve later achievement for children from low-income families is premature. Premature as well is the presumption that solid research exists to guide the content and structure of pre-K programs. Despite more than 50 years of preliminary work on pre-K as an early intervention for young children from poor backgrounds, the field of early childhood education has a relatively small database to use as a guide to effective practice. Lack of evidence about which skills and dispositions are most important to effect in pre-K and what instructional practices would affect them has led us to the current situation of poorly defined, enormously varied programs, all called pre-K, as well as a reliance on a set of quality measures with no empirical validity.

Despite being included in national and state policies and used to hold pre-K providers accountable, none of the widely used measures of classroom and center quality relates strongly, if at all, to child growth on the school readiness outcomes on which most pre-K programs are focused. The outlook for poor children is too dire to allow this situation to continue.

State investment in pre-K programs is predicated on the belief that pre-K is effective at promoting school readiness skills, and, most importantly, that those skills will then be linked to long-term school success, i.e., closing the achievement gap.[i] Oddly, despite huge support for pre-K from politicians and advocates alike, three critical questions related to this belief have not been addressed. The first is which skills and dispositions among young children are the most important to influence early for long-term success in school. The second is which classroom and center practices will work to promote those skills and dispositions. The final question is which assessment systems will validly capture the quality of those practices when they are scaled up for delivery in thousands of pre-K settings. In this paper, I argue that essential research to answer those questions has not yet been done.

Currently, participating in pre-K is voluntary and programs are varied in their content, staffing, and aegis. With the prospect of continued expansion, it is important to make sure public dollars are being invested wisely so that we do not squander this chance to positively affect the lives of young, vulnerable children.

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