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Lasting Gains from Preschool

New study connects preschool quality improvements with academic gains for preschoolers — and for high schoolers
Preschool student

For years, researchers have sought to understand the lasting impact of preschool — with some studies finding long-term benefits, and others indicating that gains tend to fade quite early. Even when long-term benefits are revealed, researchers haven’t discovered much about the underlying causes of those gains — and which preschool variables might account for lasting impact or early fade-out.

A new longitudinal study by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, published in the journal Child Development, moves the needle on that goal. The study connects the dots between gains in early academic and self-regulatory skills made in preschool and, years later, grades in high school. Broadly, it suggests that providing support for preschool teachers in low-income settings can benefit children in ways that last into high school.

An intervention that supported preschool teachers led to early academic skill-building for students — and the effects lasted into high school.

The study looked specifically at one preschool enrichment program: the Chicago School Readiness Project (CSRP), a teacher professional development and coaching intervention that ran in 35 Chicago Head Start centers in 2004 and 2005. The CSRP focused on improving classroom management and reducing teacher stress as means to indirectly improve student outcomes. The program had already been shown to have raised participants’ grades in high school.

The current research, by HGSE assistant professor Dana Charles McCoy, HGSE professor Stephanie Jones, and doctoral student Katie Gonzalez, suggests that the boost to students’ high school grades is due in part to early gains they made in vocabulary and math skills. The study also found some impacts on high school executive function (EF) skills — including students’ cognitive skills in impulse control and attention. These impacts were more ambiguous, but the findings suggest that early improvements in math skills, attributable to the preschool intervention, may, in turn, predict long-term gains in EF skills.

“Our results point to the sustained impacts of interventions that provide quality enhancements to existing preschool programming,” says McCoy. “In disadvantaged contexts, efforts to improve the well-being of preschool teachers and classroom management appear here to result in long-term benefits for children’s academic outcomes, even in the absence of additional supports for instruction.”

“Our results point to the sustained impacts of interventions that provide quality enhancements to existing preschool programming.” — Dana Charles McCoy

A link between early math skills and later executive function abilities has been suggested in a small but growing number of studies, the researchers say, but more work is needed to understand this inter-relation. The authors also note that this study looked at one specific type of program, serving one type of student; researchers will need to replicate these results in more diverse settings and program types.

But the study adds evidence of the lasting effects of incremental efforts to improve preschool programming — effects seen more than a decade later — and also of the benefits of relatively simple skill building during those early years. And this kind of knowledge is key, not only to informing the debates about preschool “fade-out,” but also to improve the quality of preschools for the rising numbers of children who are attending them. “Given recent increases in state and federally funded preschool participation,” says co-author Jones, “it’s important that we understand both the short- and the long-term impacts of early interventions, as well as the skills that may account for these effects.”


  • A preschool enrichment program — focused on supporting teacher well-being and classroom management in low-income preschools — boosted grades for participants when they reached high school, a decade later.
  • A new study finds evidence that the program’s effects on early vocabulary and math skills in preschool accounted for the gains in high school grades.
  • The program effects on early math skills may also have some connection to lasting self-regulatory skills in high school.
  • The study highlights the far-reaching impact of interventions that provide quality enhancements to existing preschool programming.

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