Upjohn Institute Researchers Tim Bartik and Brad Hershbein say high quality pre-kindergarten programs can have positive results that last into adulthood. But identifying what quality means is difficult.
A new working paper from the Kalamazoo-based Upjohn Institute for Employment Research examines public school pre-k programs across the country. Senior Economist Tim Bartik and Economist Brad Hershbein joined WMUK’s Gordon Evans.
Hershbein says there been rapid growth in students enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs – from one in eight to one in three four year olds . Hershbein says research is still developing on publicly funded programs because they haven’t been around that long.
“With this rush of expanding public pre-k programs we really wanted to understand, what has the typical public pre-k program actually done for the students.”
The Upjohn Institute working paper shows that majority African-American districts with pre-k programs have seen greater increases in math and reading scores. Bartik says that is in line with previous research, which has shown students who are disadvantaged may get more benefits.
Asked about policy implications of the research, Hershbein says states and localities have a limited amount of money to spend on education. He says with limited dollars, pre-k programs should be expanded for economically disadvantaged students.
“If you try to expand pre-k very rapidly and on a shoe string budget, it’s likely not to be that effective, or as effective as you were hoping.”
However, Bartik says if an expansion is district wide, he says then curriculum can be aligned to guard against a “fade” that’s been found in the impact of test scores at the fourth grade level.
“If the school district can count on every student, or the overwhelming majority of students entering kindergarten with certain hard skills and soft skills that can effect what kind of curriculum they can offer.”
Bartik also warns that states should not “simply be trying to get the number of slots up.” He says if more slots are being created for pre-kindergarten, it’s important to make sure the programs are funded properly, and able to attract high quality teachers.
Asked about what’s next for research into pre-kindergarten programs, Bartik says following up with school districts around the country is important. He says that includes high school graduation rates and other results for students who have been in pre-k programs. Bartik says defining what is quality pre-k is also important. He says it’s hard to hold programs accountable, “if we don’t know what quality is.”
Hershbein says there are “many moving parts” to evaluating quality. He says those include teacher certification and class sizes. Hershbein says there is some evidence that the weakest students may benefit more than others from pre-k programs. He says that’s worth further examination in future research.