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Study Finds Large Pre-K Impact

New findings by Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Christina Weiland, Ed.M.’08, Ed.D.’11, and Professor Hiro Yoshikawa were released today in the journal, Child Development, showing that Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) prekindergarten program is substantially improving children’s readiness for kindergarten.

According to the study, Impacts of a Prekindergarten Program on Children’s Mathematics, Language, Literacy, Executive Function, and Emotional Skills, more than 2,000 children enrolled in the BPS program have shown improvements in children’s language, literacy, math, executive function (the ability to regulate, control, and manage one’s thinking and actions), and emotional development skills citywide. Some of the study’s findings on the effects of the program are the largest found to date in evaluations of large-scale public prekindergarten programs. The BPS program uses research-based curricula and coaching of teachers; is taught primarily by master’s-level teachers; and is open to any child, ages 4–5, from racially, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse backgrounds. While all students who participated in the program benefited, the study noted strong improvements for Latino children.

Preschool has been shown to help prepare children for kindergarten and is an increasing priority among federal, state, and local policymakers. But many preschool programs struggle to attain good instructional quality. “We can draw several important lessons from our findings about factors that support quality in prekindergarten,” said Weiland, incoming assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Education, who was at HGSE when she led the study.

First, the combination of explicit, evidence-based curricula (in language/literacy and math) and in-classroom coaching of teachers as part of professional development likely played a major role in improving student outcomes. Investing in such quality supports for prekindergarten teachers may lead to gains in students’ school readiness, the study found.

Second, implementing consistent math, language, and literacy curricula might build children’s executive function skills. “Our results suggest that curricula in these areas may also improve such domains as executive functioning, even without directly targeting them,” Weiland said. “Interestingly, research shows that these kinds of skills — which reflect early brain development, the ability to focus, and behavior — are critical to children’s success down the road.”

Third, students in the program also may have benefited from having more mixed-income peers than is typical in most public prekindergarten programs, which are means tested and therefore tend to include mostly low-income students.

“Given the particularly large impacts for Latinos, a group that tends to be underenrolled in preschool programs, efforts to increase the enrollment of Latino children in high-quality prekindergarten programs such as the one studied here may be beneficial,” Weiland added.

The study was funded by the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education.

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