How Effective are Early Education Programs?

Georgia is one of the few states that offer a universal Pre-Kindergarten program. It’s received national acclaim. But, how well do such programs prepare children for Kindergarten?

By Martha Dalton
wabe.org

Hear the broadcast version of this story (3:30) >>

Inside the Classroom

If most pre-k classes are like those at College Heights Early Learning Center in Decatur, they’re noisy.

But everyone has a task. Ms. Griffin’s pre-k class is working in groups. She’s guiding a group of four children through a science experiment. She’s about to add dish soap to a mixture of milk and food coloring.

“I want you to draw your hypothesis,” she tells the students. “What you think will happen next time. Lucas, what did you say you think will happen?”

When the soap is added, the mixture spreads out to the sides of the container. But Griffin doesn’t just let her students marvel at the results. She prods them to reflect.

“I’m going to ask each one of you: was your hypothesis correct?” she explains. “Mia, was your hypothesis or your prediction correct?”

Mia says “yes,” and explains why.

The Research

Research on the effectiveness of pre-k programs is somewhat mixed. Several studies suggest universal programs, like Georgia’s, can eventually lead to higher graduation rates and even higher per capita earnings.

But other studies show the ‘pre-k advantage’ can wear off as early as the end of Kindergarten.

Bobby Cagle is the commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning. He says one way the state is trying to address fade out is by developing an assessment for students entering Kindergarten.

“This is teachers using national norms for what development a child should be exhibiting at that age and evaluating the child against those norms,” Cagle says. “So, then you can turn around and differentiate  instruction, you can provide the special skills that those kids need to get them where they need to be.”

Stacey French-Lee directs the child development program at Georgia State University. She says the state is also working on building continuity in the early years.

“Recently, in the state of Georgia, we have developed Georgia Early Learning Development Standards,” French-Lee says. “And those are from children from birth through pre-k. But they’re also in alignment with the K-12 standards. So, that is a way to keep this learning connected.”

What’s Next for Georgia?

At College Heights, there’s evidence those standards are taking hold. In Ms. Mansfield’s class, 5-year-old Brice heads to the writing center and takes out a big book she’s been working on. She explains she wants to be an artist, and says that means drawing pictures with lots of lines in them, like horizontal ones.

“Horizontal means a line across, like this,” she explains. “That’s a horizontal line.”

Of course, every program isn’t a College Heights. In addition to its pre-k program, it houses programs for 0-3 year olds. It’s also the school President Obama visited when he came to Georgia to promote his “Pre-k for All” proposal.

And, state officials, like Cagle, say there’s always room for improvement.

“If a research study comes back with only glowing remarks, I don’t think that’s a complete study,” he says. “We look for those things that we can improve on and any study that doesn’t do that I don’t think has done a real service to the state.”

One recent study suggested Georgia’s pre-k program could benefit from reducing class size and providing more support for bilingual students.

Cagle would also like to expand the program so it could at least accommodate the 6,000 children on this year’s waiting list.

But that costs money. The lottery-funded program suffered significant cuts in 2011 when revenues trailed demand. Although some of those cuts have been restored, the program still costs $315 million a year to run.

Cagle says expanding it would cost an additional $150-200 million/year.

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