Questions in the Making: How Will We Move Forward in Early Childhood Education?

Written by: Jessica Landgraf

Primary Source:   Green & Write, October 27, 2016


Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

If you have been involved in education, social work, or economics, it’s likely that at some point during your career you have heard reference to The Perry Preschool Project (PPP). The study was conducted from 1962-1967 in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with a total of 123 children were split into two groups, one of which received the “treatment” of newly developed high-quality preschool program, now referred to as HighScope. This landmark study is the golden child of early childhood education research and was the first randomized controlled trial (RCT) of its kind in this field. However, through the years it has come under scrutiny because its findings have been difficult to reproduce, with the notable exception of the Carolina Abecedarian Project. The impact of early childhood education – on a child’s school readiness and achievement, especially within the first several years of primary school, has come into question (CITE). In my opinion, there are two main problems with the critiques of the PPP.

The first problem comes arises in the comparison of the PPP program to later, different programs. You are essentially comparing apples and oranges. The PPP study was designed with a very specific curriculum and vision, and it controlled for all variables that could be controlled. In contrast, many other programs range in curriculum, vary in quality, and possess no true control group.

The second problem is the problem of what is being measured. The PPP made a global impact because it found not only short-term academic impacts, but also long-term benefits. Many other studies focus on the more immediate impact of school readiness and academic success (test scores) within the primary grades. Many note the fade-out of effects by grade three. This highlights the difference in value given to certain types of outcomes and the preference for certain measurements of selected outcomes. The PPP has shown greater impact on long-term outcomes and societal savings than academic achievement in the first few years of elementary school. Having a study that spanned four decades has given researchers the opportunity to look at an array of social and educational outcomes, like high school graduation rate, rather than just third grade test scores.

What should we be trying to impact? What do we value more: test scores, high school completion, or well-being? Merely because somewhat narrowly defined educational benefits may fade with time, the broader possibilities and positive results of the PPP study cannot simply be dismissed or dismissed altogether. Instead, researchers should focus on the underlying reasons for the variation among the findings of later studies.

What Should We Focus On?

The debate over the value of the PPP study highlights an important question: What should we focus on when studying the effects of preschool? As often happens in education, access is the first and most frequent issue to receive attention. We have seen this in our current election where both candidates have outlined plans to make access easier through financial assistance (details in my previous post) No one argues that cost is a major barrier to Pre-K access, and plans for childcare assistance or universal Pre-K are good places to start.

Once access is deemed sufficient, however, quality enters the conversation. Although there are early childhood models touted around the world (High Scope, Montessori, Reggio Emilia), parents often only recognize these models by name and reputation. Two recent studies show the juxtaposition between parents’ understanding of quality and evaluators’ assessment of it. In one study, 88% of parents reported that the quality of their childcare setting was “excellent” or “very good.” These findings stand in stark contrast to a review study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which found that less than 10% of Pre-K environments fall into the category “very high” quality. (An overwhelming majority were rated only as “fair.”) Given that parents often have to choose what fits within the constraints of their schedule, budget, and location–let alone the fact that they may not know what quality looks like–it is all the more important to make sure that all options are high quality.

As we look ahead to the near future when childcare and preschool may be more accessible than ever, how should we approach the opportunity presented by more accessible childcare and preschool? What results should we expect? What outcomes should we value? How should we measure quality? Who will have access to that quality? We need to think hard and remember that it’s what happens in the childcare and preschool settings that matters, not simply the provision of it.

If you are curious about recent investigations into the reasons behind fade-out, follow the link to an EdWeek article published at the beginning of this year.

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