Study: Georgia’s pre-k program gives students an edge

Georgia’s popular lottery funded pre-kindergarten program is paying off for 4-year-olds, giving them a leg up on counting and six other skills they need for school, a study released Wednesday shows.

Researchers found students who completed Georgia pre-k and were headed to kindergarten significantly outperformed students who were just entering the program on seven of 10 school readiness skills.

On four skills — including word-letter identification and math problem-solving — the pre-k graduates also exceeded the national average. But vocabulary, a critical skill in early reading, was one area where all students — whether they attended pre-k or not — essentially performed the same and below the national average, the study shows.

Still, the overall results obtained exclusively by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution were viewed as good news by the governor, researchers, child advocates and parents.

“These findings strengthen the conclusion that Georgia has a premier early education program,” Gov. Nathan Deal told the AJC.

Lead researcher Ellen S. Peisner‐Feinberg said the goal of the study — conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill — was to determine whether Georgia’s pre-k program of 20-plus years is having an impact on school readiness.

“The answer is yes it does,” she said. “It has significant positive impact on students, and that’s on boys and girls with different levels of family income and English language proficiency.”

Bobby Cagle, the commissioner of Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, said state officials are “very excited” by the findings, especially given the cutbacks the program experienced in recent years.

“It gives us good reason to believe we can do even better when we get back to the standard,” a 180-day schedule and smaller class sizes, Cagle said.

More than 1 million 4-year-olds have gone through Georgia’s voluntary and free pre-k program since it was established in the mid-1990s, using part of the proceeds from the state lottery. Anecdotal evidence of success abounds, including thousands of names on waiting lists each year and lotteries for admission at some locations. But there have been only one or two studies on whether it was really helping students.

The latter point was driven home as the economy turned sour and predictions grew dire about the long-term financial viability of both pre-k and the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program, arguably the state’s two most popular initiatives. The pre-k program saw $54 million in cuts, leading to 20 fewer days a year, larger class sizes and teachers leaving at an unprecedented rate. Ten school days were restored last year, and the program is back to 180 days for the current school year, serving 81,329 children.

Lawmakers requested and Cagle’s department commissioned three studies of the program’s effectiveness, the first of which was published last year and had mostly positive findings. The third has already launched and is tracking pre-k students’ performance through third grade. All three are costing $3.4 million in lottery funds, not tax dollars.

In the current study, researchers reported moderate to large gains when they compared the knowledge of pre-k graduates with starting pre-k students on seven skills. For instance, students who completed pre-k were able to identify 25 of the 26 letters of the alphabet, while students just starting the program knew only 18.

When their counting skills were put to a test, pre-k graduates could count objects up to 35, and the others stopped at 18, Peisner‐Feinberg said.

The study, which a national pre-k expert labeled “very rigorous,” involved 1,181 students at 90 randomly selected pre-k centers. It measured the performances of 611 children who completed pre-k in the 2011-2012 school year and were entering kindergarten against 570 students who attended pre-k in the 2012-2013 school year, Peisner-Feinberg said.

Brooke McDonald, a mother of three, said positive findings about the program came as no surprise to her. She has two boys who went through the program and a little girl who’ll be entering it soon.

Her boys, now 9 and 11, went from pre-k to kindergarten able to write their names, something she considered quite an accomplishment.

“One is now in the gifted program, and the other is taking advanced classes,” said McDonald, who works in accounting in Sandy Springs. “Who’s to say that would be the case were it not for pre-k?”

Pat Willis, the executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, called the study’s findings “a great affirmation” of the contribution of Georgia pre-k.

“Children are better prepared to learn to read as a result of the high standards we have required for curriculum and workforce in pre-k,” Willis said.

She said the findings on vocabulary, a subject “so essential to understanding and critical thinking,” should be given more attention.

“This is a wake-up call for us to invest more in children from birth to 5, especially low-income children, to expose them to both language and experiences that will build their ability to compete,” Willis said.

Steve Barnett, considered a leading national expert on pre-k, also voiced concern about the findings related to vocabulary.

“That’s a big thing and the hardest thing,” he said, “and it’s where we see the smallest effect.”

He said he wonders whether the budget cutbacks aren’t reflected in the findings, which he said are better than some he’s seen but not as good as others.

“It certainly shows you need to raise quality in Georgia,” Barnett said.

But Barnett praised the “very rigorous” nature of the study and said he considered the overall results “great,” especially in math and reading.

“The fact that they don’t find effects on everything,” he said, “confirms that these are real effects and not just the results of some unknown bias in the sampling.”

Susan Adams, assistant commissioner for pre-k, said she’ll be pouring over the study data to determine how best to support the pre-k teachers and students.

“These studies kind of allow us to have a road map of what we’ve done that has worked,” she said.

By Nancy Badertscher – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.


Georgia’s pre-kindergarten program studied

Who did the study: Researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. It’s one of three studies by the institute that are collectively costing $3.4 million in lottery funds.

Who did it study: 1,181 students at 90 randomly selected pre-k centers across the state — 611 who completed Georgia pre-k in the 2011-2012 school year and were entering kindergarten and 570 who attended pre-k in the 2012-2013 school year.

What did researchers look at: They evaluated how students in both groups performed on 10 school readiness skills.

What skills were evaluated: Naming letters — ability to recognize and name all 26 letters of the alphabet; Letter-word identification — basic pre-reading and reading skills, including recognizing and identifying written letters and words; Phonological awareness — sound awareness skills that are important pre-reading skills, such as rhyming; Phonemic awareness — knowledge of letter sounds and sound combinations; Vocabulary — understanding and expression of language (receptive and expressive vocabulary); Math problem-solving — using basic math skills, such as comparisons, counting, addition, and subtraction; Counting — counting objects in a one-to-one correspondence; Basic self-knowledge — knowledge and communication of basic knowledge about themselves (full name, age, birth date); Social skills — teacher ratings of behaviors that promote positive interactions with others; Problem behaviors — teacher ratings of negative behaviors, some commonly occurring and others less commonly occurring, that interfere with social skills development.

Key results: Pre-k graduates outperformed students who hadn’t attended pre-k yet on seven out of 10 skills (letter knowledge, letter‐word identification, phonemic awareness, math counting, phonological awareness, math problem‐solving and basic self‐knowledge). No significant differences were detected for three skills: vocabulary, social skills and problem behaviors.

* Pre-k graduates scored above the national norm on letter-word identification, phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, math problem-solving and problem behaviors; at the norm on social skills; and below the norm on vocabulary.

Why it matters: 1.2 million children have gone through the program and $5 billion has been spent in the program’s 20-plus years. Georgia was considered an early education leader in the country when, under Gov. Zell Miller, the program was created using partial proceeds from lottery ticket sales. It and the HOPE scholarship program, which is also funded by the lottery, are arguably the two most popular state government programs.

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One response to “Study: Georgia’s pre-k program gives students an edge

  1. In states with universal pre-kindergarten such as Georgia and Oklahoma, there are studies that these programs lead to important, long-lasting benefits. Far from it. With a quality preschool or pre-kindergarten program, one can see modest short term gains. However, in almost all of those examples, the gains disappear by the third grade.