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Early childhood

Kathleen Lynch, Monica Lee, Susanna Loeb.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on preschool children’s school readiness skills remains understudied. This research investigates Head Start preschool children’s early numeracy, literacy, and executive function outcomes during a pandemic-affected school year. Study children (N = 336 assessed at fall baseline; N = 237-250 assessed in spring depending on outcome; fall baseline sample: mean age = 51 months; 46% Hispanic; 36% Black Non-Hispanic; 52% female) in a network of Head Start centers in four states (Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) experienced low in-person preschool exposure compared to national pre-pandemic norms. Children experienced fall to spring score gains during the pandemic-affected year of 0.05 SD in executive function, 0.27 SD in print knowledge, and 0.45-0.71 SD in early numeracy skills. Descriptively, for two of the three early numeracy domains measured, spring test score outcomes were stronger among children who attended more in-person preschool. We discuss implications for future research and policy.

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Kathryn E. Gonzalez, Olivia Healy, Luke Miratrix, Terri J. Sabol.

Despite considerable evidence on the links between average classroom quality and children’s learning, the importance of variation in quality is not well understood. We examined whether three measures of variation in observed classroom quality over the school year – overall variation in quality, teacher-specific trends in quality, and instability in quality – were associated with children’s language, literacy, and regulatory outcomes. We also examined whether variation in quality was associated with teachers’ participation in coaching. Overall variation and instability in emotional support and classroom organization over the year were negatively associated with children’s regulatory and literacy outcomes. Participation in coaching was linked to increased variation only in instructional support. We discuss implications for policies focused on improving classroom quality.

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Kalena E. Cortes, Karen Kortecamp, Susanna Loeb, Carly D. Robinson.

This paper presents the results from a randomized controlled trial of Chapter One, an early elementary reading tutoring program that embeds part-time tutors into the classroom to provide short bursts of 1:1 instruction. Eligible kindergarten students were randomly assigned to receive supplementary tutoring during the 2021-22 school year (N=818). The study occurred in a large Southeastern district serving predominantly Black and Hispanic students. Students assigned to the program were over two times more likely to reach the program’s target reading level by the end of kindergarten (70% vs. 32%). The results were largely homogenous across student populations and extended to district-administered assessments. These findings provide promising evidence of an affordable and sustainable approach for delivering personalized reading tutoring at scale.

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Anamarie A. Whitaker, Margaret Burchinal, Jade M. Jenkins, Drew H. Bailey, Tyler W. Watts, Greg J. Duncan, Emma R. Hart, Ellen S. Peisner-Feinberg.

High-quality preschool programs are heralded as effective policy solutions to promote low-income children’s development and life-long wellbeing. Yet evaluations of recent preschool programs produce puzzling findings, including negative impacts, and divergent, weaker results than demonstration programs implemented in the 1960s and 70s. We provide potential explanations for why modern preschool programs have become less effective, focusing on changes in instructional practices and counterfactual conditions. We also address popular theories that likely do not explain weakening program effectiveness, such as lower preschool quality and low-quality subsequent environments. The field must take seriously the smaller positive, null, and negative impacts from modern programs and strive to understand why effects differ and how to improve program effectiveness through rigorous, longitudinal research.

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Henry T. Woodyard, Tim R. Sass, Ishtiaque Fazlul.

Numerous studies have demonstrated a strong link between participation in pre-K programs and both short-term student achievement and positive later-life outcomes.  Existing evidence primarily stems from experimental studies of small-scale, high-quality programs conducted in the 1960s and 1970s and analyses of the federal Head Start program.  Meanwhile, evidence on state-funded pre-K programs, with no income restrictions, is scant and inconclusive.  Using enrollment lotteries for over-subscribed school-based sites in Georgia’s universal pre-K program, we analyze the impact of participation on elementary school outcomes.  Lottery winners enter kindergarten more prepared in both math and reading than non-winning peers. Gains fade by the end of kindergarten, and some negative achievement effects emerge by grade 4. Free-and-reduced-price meal (FRPM) students benefit more compared to non-FRPM students in later grades, suggesting greater benefits from attendance for disadvantaged students.  Although we find no effects for discipline, lottery winners had one fewer absence each grade after kindergarten.

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Shaun M. Dougherty, Mary M. Smith, Beth Kelly .

Prior research has clearly established the substantial expected payoffs to investments in early childhood education. However, the ability to deliver early childhood programs differs across communities with access to high quality programing especially hard to establish in rural communities. We study one program, Early Steps to School Success, to understand whether the provision of home visiting and book exchange programs in rural Kentucky can influence kindergarten readiness. Linking program data with the state longitudinal data system in Kentucky we create multiple comparison groups by matching children on known program qualification indicators to estimate whether Early Steps program participation was related to school readiness. Our estimates suggest that program participation resulted in small improvements to children’s kindergarten readiness, as measured by the Brigance kindergarten readiness assessment overall score and sub-scores in language, cognitive, and physical development. Results are not sensitive to our choice of comparison group, though they appear driven by the experiences of children who participate from birth through age five or from ages three-to-five only. Our findings suggest that the Early Steps home visiting intervention may be a worthwhile intervention for improving kindergarten preparedness for children living in rural contexts.

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Meghan McCormick, Cullen MacDowell, Christina Weiland, JoAnn Hsueh, Michelle Maier, Mirjana Pralica, Samuel Maves, Catherine Snow, Jason Sachs.

This study uses implementation fidelity data from PreK to 1st grade in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) to measure instructional alignment and examine whether stronger alignment is associated with sustained benefits of BPS PreK on children’s language, literacy, and math skills through first grade. The study includes N = 498 students (mean age = 5.47, SD = 0.30 in K fall). Children who experienced strong instructional alignment across grades had faster gains in literacy (SD = .47) and math (SD = .28) skills through the spring of first grade compared with non-BPS PreK attenders. Mis-alignment predicted faster convergence in literacy skills. Results highlight that instructional alignment may help to sustain the initial benefits of PreK programs through first grade in a subset of outcome domains. Implications for further research measuring alignment in a broader range of settings and implications for practice are discussed.

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Robert C. Carr, Margaret Burchinal, Lynne Vernon-Feagans.

A systematic review of the literature (1965–2022) and meta-analysis were undertaken to compare the school readiness skills of children participating in public pre-kindergarten (pre-K) or Head Start. Seven quasi-experimental studies met the inclusion criteria for the meta-analysis and 38 effect sizes were analyzed. Results indicated no reliable meta-analytic effect in relation to children’s school readiness skills overall nor in relation to language, mathematics, or social-behavioral skills specifically. A small, positive meta-analytic effect favoring public pre-K compared to Head Start participation was found in relation to children’s emergent literacy skills (Hedges’ g = 0.17). Strategies are discussed to further equate the benefits of public pre-K and Head Start programming by facilitating greater cross-sector collaboration.

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Meghan McCormick, Mirjana Pralica, JoAnn Hsueh, Christina Weiland, Amanda Weissman, Samantha Xia, Anna Shapiro, Cullen MacDowell, Samuel Maves, Anne Taylor, Jason Sachs.

This study leverages six years of public prekindergarten (PreK) and kindergarten data (N = 22,469) from the Boston Public Schools (BPS) to examine enrollment in BPS PreK from 2012–2017 for students from different racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, and linguistic groups. The largest differences in enrollment emerged with respect to race and ethnicity—and for enrollment in programs in higher-quality schools (defined as schools scoring in the top quartile on third grade standardized tests)—with disparities increasing over time. Although there were no differences across groups in proximity to BPS PreK programs in general, Black students lived about a quarter of a mile further than their White peers from the nearest program in a higher-quality school, with gaps widening over time. Closer proximity was associated with a higher likelihood of enrollment in a program in a higher-quality school. Implications for future research and policy are discussed.

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Christina Weiland, Rebecca Unterman, Susan Dynarski, Rachel Abenavoli, Howard Bloom, Breno Braga, Anne-Marie Faria, Erica Greenberg, Brian Jacob, Jane Arnold Lincove, Karen Manship, Meghan McCormick, Luke Miratrix, Tomás E. Monarrez, Pamela Morris-Perez, Anna Shapiro, Jon Valant, Lindsay Weixler.

Lottery-based identification strategies offer potential for generating the next generation of evidence on U.S. early education programs.  Our collaborative network of five research teams applying this design in early education and methods experts has identified six challenges that need to be carefully considered in this next context: 1) available baseline covariates may not be very rich; 2) limited data on the counterfactual; 3) limited and inconsistent outcome data; 4) weakened internal validity due to attrition; 5) constrained external validity due to who competes for oversubscribed programs; and 6) difficulties answering site-level questions with child-level randomization.  We offer potential solutions to these six challenges and concrete recommendations for the design of future lottery-based early education studies.

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