This latest Pre-to-3 column highlights research on Georgia's long-running universal pre-K program. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.
Few states have as much experience with public pre-K as Georgia. The first to create a universal state-funded program — not restricted to low-income families or children facing other risks — the state created a model that has inspired other early education-focused policymakers across the country.
“A lot of states look to Georgia for how to set up a system and take it to scale,” said Susan Adams, deputy commissioner for pre-K and instructional support with Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL).
But even as the program enters its 27th year this fall, leaders say they are still learning lessons about how to balance quality improvement efforts with expanding preschool access to more children and working with teachers in the early grades to build on learning that takes place in pre-K — the same challenges facing the field nationally.
Some of those questions are addressed, and additional ones are raised, in a new study led by Diane Early of Child Trends, who worked with DECAL to examine test scores for all of the state’s 3rd-graders during the 2015-16 school year. The analysis compares scores for those who did and didn’t attend state pre-K in 2011-12.
The findings show students who attended Georgia pre-K had slightly higher scale scores on the state’s end-of-grade test than those who didn’t in all subject areas — by 3.95 points in English language arts, 4.36 points in math, 2.73 points in science and 3.46 points in social studies. Program participation also increased the chances students would score at the proficient or distinguished level on the state test.
The big takeaways
Overall, the researchers see the results as significant for a few reasons — even if they aren’t overwhelmingly positive. “The gap between participation in Georgia’s pre-K and 3rd-grade test scores is long (4 years), and the children had many experiences that affected their test scores after participation in Georgia’s pre-K,” they write.
Researchers and early learning experts in recent years have called for more attention to how the primary grades can build on the learning children gain from attending preschool.
“How do you factor in children’s experiences beyond pre-K?” asks Adams. “One year of pre-K may get you ready for kindergarten, but if you don’t have the same kind of supportive environments in K, 1 and 2, then you’re not going to see the same kind of results in 3rd grade.”
The results are also significant because pre-K focuses on more than just academics, such as social skills and family engagement. And a third reason, the researchers write, is that the tests Georgia students take in 3rd grade are not necessarily intended to measure the impact of pre-K.
For students enrolled in free and reduced-price lunch (FRL), pre-K participants outperformed those who didn’t attend pre-K. But among those not on FRL, children who were not enrolled in state pre-K scored slightly higher.
It’s possible that non-FRL students who also didn’t attend Georgia pre-K attended other high-quality private preschool programs, which can make the benefits of the state-funded program disappear, the researchers suggest. This question is common when studying the effects of an early-childhood program: Just because a child didn’t attend the program being studied doesn’t mean they didn’t have access to other early learning experiences.
But W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), said the finding that non-disadvantaged children in the program fared worse than those not in pre-K should be a “wake-up call,” and that universal programs in general “can't be complacent about quality.”
The study, he said, focuses on a tough time period for the program, when it increased class sizes because of budget constraints, and that funding per-child is still well below pre-recession levels.
Adams, however, has other interpretations of the findings, noting that FRL is not necessarily the best measure of poverty, especially as more schools have taken advantage of the National School Lunch Program’s Community Eligibility Provision, allowing them to serve free meals to all students. She said there is other data “that says all children are benefiting from the program.”
The study also raises the question of whether public pre-K, as many have debated over the years, is more beneficial for children from low-income families. But Early and her co-authors say the results shouldn’t be used to argue for a targeted model.
“We cannot know if we would have found these same results for children receiving FRL if the program served only economically disadvantaged children,” they write. “Program quality is typically higher in universal pre-K programs, like Georgia’s, as compared with those that serve only children at risk for school difficulties, possibly due to peer effects, ability to attract higher quality teachers and support from the general public.”
'Thinking about the trade-offs'
This certainly isn’t the first time that researchers have studied Georgia’s long-running program, largely funded with lottery dollars. Adams noted, however, that there have been missed opportunities to follow participants over a longer period of time.
That’s what the state is currently doing with a longitudinal evaluation being conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Requested by the Georgia legislature, the study has so far followed a sample of students through 3rd grade and Adams said there are plans to continue collecting data through 5th grade. The researchers are also collecting data on children’s classroom experiences in the early grades to gain more understanding of what takes place between pre-K and 3rd grade.
According to the most recent NIEER State Preschool Yearbook, Georgia pre-K meets eight out of 10 benchmarks for pre-K quality and serves 61% of the state’s 4-year-olds.
“Ensuring that all children are able to access high-quality programs remains a challenge.”
Georgia's deputy commissioner for pre-K and instructional support with Bright from the Start
The state doesn’t serve 3-year-olds except for a small “rising pre-K” program targeted to dual language learners, which also helps to serve as a training ground for pre-K teachers working with children whose home language is Spanish, Adams said. The agency also aims to enroll the bulk of the state’s 4-year-olds so Head Start can focus more on serving 3-year-olds.
Despite being a universal program, waiting lists still exist, particularly in the metro Atlanta counties and in the Savannah area, Adams said.
“We talk about the waiting lists a lot,” she said, adding that the agency is working with researchers at the University of Georgia to conduct focus groups with families on waiting lists to better understand their issues regarding access. Sometimes, she said, an open slot doesn’t meet a family’s needs, but in some counties the program serves 100% of 4-year-olds.
While the overall rate of 4-year-olds served by the program has not grown significantly in recent years, Adams said, “I think we are always thinking about the trade-offs — increasing access while also maintaining quality.”
Helping programs find that balance can also be a goal for researchers, Early said in an email. “We have numerous studies now indicating that high quality [early-childhood education] has small, but meaningful impacts on children’s development and supports families,” she said. “But, ensuring that all children are able to access high-quality programs remains a challenge.”
Researchers are also beginning to learn more about families that don't apply for universal pre-K programs when space is available.
Another recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan and MDRC, focusing on the universal pre-K program in the Boston Public Schools, shows that "nonappliers" are more likely that those that do apply to be non-white, to be low income, and to be non-English speaking. These children are also more likely to later attend lower-quality elementary schools and to have poorer 3rd-grade outcomes.
"These findings suggest that as prekindergarten programs expand, they should pay attention to identifying and targeting children who are unlikely to enroll in any prekindergarten program, if they want to draw in the most disadvantaged students rather than targeting nonappliers in general," the authors write. They add that similar analyses in other parts of the country could aid in "recruiting the students who could benefit most."
A well-established system
In addition to a quality monitoring system, DECAL has increased providers’ access to coaching. And for the past two years, all lead and assistant teachers have received raises as part of an effort to bring their salaries more in line with Georgia's K-12 teachers and to improve retention.
With about half of pre-K students in school-based programs and the other half in community-based centers, the agency has also focused on making sure children have similar preschool experiences.
“We have a really good system of ensuring that pre-k programs are solid quality,” Adams said, “regardless of the setting you go to.”
Georgia Pre-K’s contribution to the field overall has been “huge,” Early said, adding that one reason is because the state has used research to improve and expand services.
“The program is so well established now that it is a well-accepted part of Georgia’s educational system,” she said. “For that reason, Georgia can focus its energy on ensuring the program is of high quality and providing [early-childhood education] to younger children.”