Four-year-olds in Massachusetts are more likely to attend formal early-childhood education programs, such as Head Start or a pre-K class, than 3-year-olds, according to the early results of a new longitudinal early education study from researchers at Harvard University.
The findings, from a household survey, could suggest that more options are open to 4-year-olds or that parents are more motivated to enroll their children in preschool the year prior to kindergarten, the researchers say. Three-year-olds are just as likely to spend time in center-based programs as they are informal settings, such as friend, relative and neighbor care; a family child-care home; or at home with a parent.
The initial findings of the Early Learning Study, launched this past summer, confirm what most people already know — that 4-year-olds are more likely than 3-year-olds to be in formal early education programs. But over time, the project is expected to contribute to the body of research on early-childhood education by showing how the different settings children spend time in before school affects later learning and development.
The study will be of interest to school and district leaders, who clearly recognize that some children enter school with more skills and knowledge than others and often direct resources toward instructional programs to try to narrow those gaps. School districts are also increasingly offering pre-K programs or involved in community-wide efforts to improve educational opportunities and will benefit from knowledge on which practices in preschool classrooms are more likely to lead to long-term gains.
“To our knowledge, this is a first-of-its kind design, which will allow us to draw claims about a broad array of settings and the features of those early learning experiences that link to children’s learning and development,” says Nonie Lesaux, an education professor at Harvard and one of the lead researchers on the project.
Working with Abt Associates, the researchers also asked parents about their greatest concerns regarding their children. Education and academic skills were cited as the top concern by 32% of the sample, with social-emotional development listed by 17%.
The importance of study design
While the initial survey results focus on 444 children living in 69 census block groups in Massachusetts, the study will ultimately include a representative sample of 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds from 100 randomly selected communities throughout the state “to match the demographics of today’s childhood population,” Lesaux says. The study will also include a representative sample of settings to match the broad range of environments in which children spend their time before kindergarten.
The researchers will follow the children for four years and measure their development twice a year by having them compete various activities that examine “key domains,” including cognitive skills, language development and social-emotional skills, such as self-regulation. They hope to better understand what learning outcomes and developmental gains can be expected from early learning environments, which outcomes are more dependent on high-quality programs and how those outcomes vary by different groups of children. They also hope to learn which elements of early learning programs “maintain and multiply the benefits of preschool” and which practices work against those benefits.
While focusing the study on only one state is clearly a “limitation in the grand scheme of things,” Lesaux says, she adds that because the project uses a new approach, it was “best to start with one state.” She added, however, that the team plans to make public the design and strategy of the study so that other states, researchers and funders might use it in other locations.
Early education for 3-year-olds
The initial findings mirror national data on early education enrollment. For example, the Condition of Education report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in 2015, 67% of 4-year-olds were in some type of “preprimary” program, compared to 38% of 3-year-olds.
State-funded preschool programs — which represent only one type of program a child might attend — are also more likely to enroll 4-year-olds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, which tracks state-funded pre-K trends. Overall, these public preschool programs serve 32% of 4-year-olds compared to only 5% of 3-year-olds. Illinois, New Jersey and Vermont are among the few states that serve higher proportions of 3-year-olds in state-funded programs.
Some large urban districts, such the District of Columbia Public Schools and now the New York City Department of Education, are also opening their preschool programs to 3-year-olds. As part of his ambitious universal preschool initiative, which began with 4-year-olds, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said earlier this year that he also wants to make free preschool available to all 3-year-olds by 2021.
Multiple studies, such as the long-running Chicago Longitudinal Study, have shown that children benefit more from two years of preschool than they do from one. The Chicago study, focusing on the Chicago Public Schools’ Child-Parent Centers, has shown that compared to one year, two years of preschool can have short-term benefits, such as being less likely to repeat a grade or to need special education services, as well as long-term benefits, including less involvement in juvenile crime.
Comparisons to past research
Most studies on early-childhood education tend to focus on a specific model, such as the Perry Preschool Study in Michigan or the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina. Harvard’s Early Learning study will be different in that it will look at the multiple settings in which preschool-age children spend their time. Many children also experience multiple out-of-home environments before kindergarten, such as half the day in a preschool class and the other half with a babysitter or in a child-care center.
The long-running Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and ran from 1991 to 2007, also provided data on different settings. But it was not considered reflective of the population — only about 20 percent of the children were from low-income homes — and it didn’t focus on the variety of early learning settings that exist before kindergarten.
The NICHD study “propelled the field and the research base forward, in particular by informing a number of key policy questions and laying the groundwork for further research in this domain,” Lesaux says, but added that “the representative nature of the [Harvard] sample and setting types reflects probably the greatest difference between the two studies.”
The early-childhood education landscape also looks quite different today than it did in the early 1990s — in Massachusetts as well as across the country. Most states now have publicly funded preschool programs, many have instituted quality improvement initiatives for child-care programs and research on early brain development has influenced many of the programs serving young children.
The NICHD study, however, produced data that is still being analyzed today. Following children from birth through 9th grade, the researchers’ early findings showed that children who spent more time in center-based child care had more behavior problems but also scored higher on cognitive measures. The findings were the fodder of talk show debates over whether new mothers should stay home with their infants and toddlers.
Years later, researchers still saw those same patterns in students when they were in high school, which further confirms why children’s early learning experiences have implications for K-12 schools.
“This is your feeder system,” says Robert Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and one of the lead researchers on the NICHD study. “The kinds of experiences that are accruing in these early settings matter. Even if you look to age 16 in those kids, there are still significant effects from those early care experiences.”