FPG Research and Evaluation Intersect With President’s Call for Universal Preschool Access
In what would be the boldest policy initiative designed to further the education of young children since the Head Start program in 1965, President Obama used his State of the Union address to issue a call for universal access to statewide pre-kindergarten programs. The President cited findings from a well-established base of research that includes a long-running study at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG), and he also praised Georgia’s universal pre-kindergarten program, which a team from FPG recently evaluated.
Ten minutes into his address, the President introduced his plan to bipartisan applause. “Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. That’s something we should be able to do.”
The President singled out Georgia’s Pre-kindergarten Program for its universal access, making timely mention of a state that has received attention in recent weeks after a team from FPG wrapped up its report on a study of the state’s program.
Led by senior scientist Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, the FPG project undertook a statewide evaluation, including a study of classroom quality and outcomes for children participating in the program during the pre-kindergarten year.
“Children in Georgia’s Pre-K Program exhibited significant growth during their pre-k year across all domains of learning: language and literacy skills, math skills, general knowledge, and behavioral skills,” says Peisner-Feinberg. “For many areas, this indicated that they progressed at an even faster rate than would be expected for normal developmental growth.”
Peisner-Feinberg’s team also determined that Georgia’s program was valuable to children who were Spanish-speaking dual language learners. “They made gains in both English and Spanish, even though the primary language of instruction was English,” she says.
FPG’s recommendations for Georgia included adding bilingual supports to children’s classroom experiences to support their development of skills in both languages and better prepare children for kindergarten. Peisner-Feinberg also advised reducing class size and adult-to-child ratios in order to improve classroom quality and further enhance child outcomes.
Georgia is one of a small handful of states offering universal access to pre-kindergarten programs to all 4-year-olds. According to Peisner-Feinberg, similar benefits for children have been found in numerous studies of pre-kindergarten programs in other states, including North Carolina’s program, which she has studied since its start.
“In contrast to the universal pre-k program in Georgia, the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program is a more targeted program, designed to serve at-risk 4-year-olds across the state who meet eligibility criteria,” she says. “In our studies over the past 12 years, we have consistently found positive effects of program participation on children’s school readiness skills and subsequent performance in kindergarten, as well as longer-term effects on reading and math skills at the end of third grade.”
North Carolina’s targeted program also has significantly impacted children who were learning English. “We have found the greatest gains for children with the lowest levels of English proficiency,” says Peisner-Feinberg.
After the President introduced his proposal, he then turned to broader research to underscore its importance. “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” said the President. “Studies show students grew up more likely to read or do math at grade level, graduate high school, form stable families of their own.”
FPG’s long-running Abecedarian Project, a rigorous scientific study that measures the potential benefits of early childhood education for children of low-income families in North Carolina, has revealed many of the same types of far-reaching outcomes the President asserted broadly for high-quality early childhood education. The study has continued to follow people who had received enriched early childhood education from early infancy to age five and has found significant benefits for its participants years later.
At age 21, for instance, the benefits to the Abecedarian Project’s participants from early education included higher reading and mathematics test scores, more years of education, greater likelihood of being enrolled in college, greater likelihood of being in school or having a skilled job, and less likelihood of being a teen parent.
“We know this works,” the President concluded, again broadly avowing the effects of early childhood education. “Let’s give our kids that chance.”
Peisner-Feinberg concurs that the evidence is clear.
“As the President said, we know from the research that early childhood education has positive effects not only on preparing children for school, getting them on the right trajectory, but can even have lasting effects well into adulthood,” she says. “Given this large body of research, it makes sense to provide high-quality early education for children before kindergarten, and I look forward to hearing the details of President Obama’s plan.”