Despite the fact that many programs vary in quality, public preschool programs have been shown to benefit students from all economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds, according to a research brief funded by the Foundation for Child Development.
The brief, conducted by 10 researchers from universities around the country, analyzed previous studies on the effectiveness of preschool on children's achievement later in life. The studies analyzed were conducted between 1965 and 2007 and covered 84 preschool programs. Overall, the brief concluded that public preschool programs provide an average gain of a third of a year of academic growth, and some programs in cities such as Boston as well as Tulsa, Okla., have seen even larger gains of up to a full year of additional learning.
"Evaluations of these programs tell us that preschool programs implemented at scale can be high quality, can benefit children from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and can reduce disparities," said co-author Deborah Phillips, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, in a statement.
Previous research has focused on how preschool programs can benefit low-income and minority students, who typically experience larger achievement gaps later in their educational careers. The analysis found that children from middle-income families also experience gains, but low-income children do benefit more from preschool, suggesting high-quality programs could reduce disparities in skills. Still, the analysis found children overall show greater gains when the programs are of higher quality, and that many classrooms need improvement.
"In large-scale studies of prekindergarten, for example, only a minority of programs are observed to provide excellent quality; a comparable minority of programs are observed to provide poor quality," the analysis says.
The most important aspect of a quality program, the authors argue, is "stimulating and supportive" interactions between teachers and children. In order to increase the quality of the programs, the authors say efforts should focus on teacher qualifications and compensation, as well as monitoring quality, lowering student-to-teacher ratios, and providing continual coaching and mentoring for teachers.
"Children benefit most when teachers engage in stimulating interactions that support learning and are emotionally supportive," the analysis says. "Interactions that help children acquire new knowledge and skills provide input to children, elicit verbal responses and reactions from them, and foster engagement in and enjoyment of learning."