For universal pre-K to work, we must revamp K-12 education

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At President Biden’s urging, the House has voted to embark on a massive social experiment — universal pre-K for all 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in the United States. If the Senate concurs, we will be making a historic new investment in the education of young children.

The future of this experiment, if enacted, will depend on the details worked out by the federal bureaucracy, continued congressional funding and how the states respond.

But you don’t need a crystal ball to predict the likelihood of success. Several states and multiple local governments have adopted and implemented universal pre-K, and several reputable studies have assessed its impact. Studies of targeted pre-K programs also provide valuable clues as to how universal pre-K will work.

The major lesson from this body of research is simple but important: When designing a universal pre-K program, think carefully about what goes on inside the preschool classroom, but also redesign K-12 education to ensure favorable outcomes down the road.

Everyone agrees that universal pre-K boosts young children’s cognitive skills and enhances their school readiness. Some studies also show modest gains in socio-emotional development or executive functioning skills.  

Children from across the socioeconomic spectrum benefit from universal pre-K, including both disadvantaged children and middle-class children. But disadvantaged children benefit the most.

At least one important study shows that universal pre-K yields stronger short-term improvements than targeted pre-K. Presumably, this is because disadvantaged children benefit from interactions with middle-class children, whether inside or outside the classroom.

The more controversial question is whether universal pre-K and pre-K generally yield lasting benefits that extend through elementary school, middle school, high school and beyond.  

In thinking about this question, Drew Bailey and his colleagues have offered a powerful hypothesis, which they call the “sustaining environment” hypothesis: Early childhood interventions have lasting positive effects on important educational and life outcomes if and only if children are exposed to beneficial environments after graduating from preschool. Such environments include school, home life, community experiences and other policy interventions.

Of these possibilities, we know the most about schools. And it should be said that schools sometimes let us down. A common problem is that schools do not always offer enough new material in the curriculum to stimulate and challenge pre-K graduates and to help them acquire new skills.

Interestingly enough, even students who did not attend pre-K seem to benefit from a more challenging school curriculum. The growth of small group instruction in our schools enables teachers to aim high while ensuring that struggling students get the attention they deserve.

So, one important change as pre-K enrollments surge should be for K-12 educators to ratchet up their pedagogy in recognition of the superior preparation of children entering kindergarten. Young children are eager for new knowledge, big questions and new experiences. Elementary school teachers should keep that firmly in mind as they craft their lesson plans and implement them in the classroom.

It is also vital to give students and parents lots of good choices as they consider schools in their community. In Tulsa, Okla., which has offered universal pre-K since 1998, a key sustaining environment has been the presence of strong magnet middle schools and high schools. Pre-K alumni have enrolled more often in these schools, thus staving off the dreaded “fade out” that might otherwise extinguish pre-K gains. 

More broadly, the quality of schools and the quality of teachers matters after children attend preschool as much as it does when they attend preschool. Vanderbilt University researchers, who found evidence of rapid fadeout after preschool in Tennessee, a targeted pre-K state, nevertheless found sustained educational gains for those students who attended better than average elementary schools with better than average teachers. As Raj Chetty and others have shown, teacher quality matters and matters a lot.

Another worthy candidate for a sustaining environment is near-peer mentor programs, such as those utilized by City Year in 29 cities. These programs rely on a cadre of young college graduates to help disadvantaged students navigate the intellectual and social challenges of school. Studies show that near-peer mentoring reduces chronic absenteeism, thereby promoting high school graduation and other favorable outcomes.

The good news about these sustaining environment reforms is that many of them cost little or nothing.  Also, positive consequences from universal pre-K, such as lower rates of grade retention, should help us to pay for more costly reforms, such as paying teachers better.  

A national universal pre-K program is a historic investment in our next generation. It has the potential to boost educational and life outcomes for millions of children. Whether it does so will depend not just on how we design our preschools but also on how we reform our K-12 educational system.

Universal pre-K without sustaining environments will yield impressive short-term gains but minimal long-term improvements. Universal pre-K with sustaining environments is a potential game-changer.

William T. Gormley Jr. is a professor of Public Policy at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.  He is the principal investigator for the Tulsa Pre-K Project.

Tags Early childhood education Education in the United States Education policy Educational stages Joe Biden Kindergarten K–12 Pre-kindergarten preschool Universal preschool

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