The PA-IMH breakfast seminar on Feb. 6, 2015 featured a presentation by Dr. Daniel Hart of the Institute for Effective Education. Rutgers-Camden, on “Quality Early Childhood Education: Why Does It Matter? What Does It Look Like?”. Dr. Hart’s presentation returned several times to the theme sounded by President Obama not long ago: “Tonight, I propose working with states to make high quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on.”
But is this claim correct? Are we even in a position to define high quality early education and to identify factors in preschool that cause improved academic and behavioral performance later on?
Research on some programs shows great overall benefit from high quality preschool education. For example, results of the Perry Preschool program included a reduction in the number of children needing special education, an increased number graduating from high school, increased earnings and increased home ownership. A study of the outcome of a weekly stimulating play group in Jamaica showed increased earnings 20 years later. However, while some research on Head Start shows short-term gains for the children, by the end of third grade these were no longer apparent.
Is it a problem that research on preschool education may sometimes be poorly designed, in addition to having a focus on factors that are actually not very important? Research on the Abecedarian Project in the 1979s was described as using a randomized controlled design, but in fact did not entirely conform to the rules about designs of this kind.
What about the factors that need to be studied? Dr. Hart discussed the adoption of Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRISs) by states. Started by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the 1990s, QRISs are a method for encouraging the use of high quality preschool practices. But, according to an article cited by Dr. Hart and written by T.J. Sabol et al (“Can rating pre-K programs predict children’s learning? Science, 341, 23 August 2013, 845-846), QRISs on the whole have not looked at child outcomes in ways that can tell us whether programs we call “high quality” are actually facilitating learning and fostering children’s good development. Most QRISs have been based on local professionals’ judgments about the selection of practices that indicate high quality, their decisions about how to determine levels of quality, and suggested methods for creating composite ratings for programs. Rather than looking at what teachers actually do, QRISs have tended to look at easily-determined information like the teachers’ academic qualifications. Acccording to Sabol and colleagues, when child outcomes are measured, high quality programs do not give better results on most outcomes than programs that are rated lower in quality. In their research, a measure of the quality of child-teacher interaction—not usually included in QRISs-- was the best predictor of good learning outcomes.
There are many reasons to encourage early childhood education and to fund it adequately, but there continue to be many unanswered questions about how we assess high quality programs and assure the public that funds are well-spent.