02/06/2014 09:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Preschools and Evidence: A Child Will Lead Us


These are exciting times for people who care about preschool, for people who care about evidence, and especially for people who care about both. President Obama advocated for expanding high-quality preschool opportunities, Bill de Blasio, the new Mayor of New York City, is proposing new taxes on the wealthy for this purpose, and many states are moving toward universal preschool, or at least considering it. The recently passed Omnibus Budget had $250 million in it for states to add to or improve their preschool programs.

What is refreshing is that after thirty years of agreement among researchers that it's only high-quality preschools that have long-term positive effects, the phrase "high quality" has become part of the political dialogue. At a minimum, "high quality" means "not just underpaid, poorly educated preschool teachers." But beyond this, "high quality" is easy to agree on, difficult to define.

This is where evidence comes in. We have good evidence about long-term effects of very high-quality preschool programs compared to no preschool, but identifying exceptionally effective, replicable programs (in comparison to run-of-the-mill preschools) has been harder.

The importance of identifying preschool programs that actually work is being recognized not only in academia, but in the general press as well. In the January 29 New York Times, Daniel Willingham and David Grissmer advocated local and national randomized experiments to find out what works in preschool. On January 30, Nicholas Kristof wrote about rigorous research supporting long-term effects of preschool. Two articles on randomized experiments in education would be a good week for Education Week, much less the New York Times.

With President Obama, John Boehner, and the great majority of Americans favoring expansion of high-quality preschools, this might be an extraordinarily good time for the U.S. Department of Education to sponsor development and evaluation of promising preschool models. At the current rate it will take a long time to get to universal pre-K, so in the meantime let's learn what works.

The U. S. Department of Education did such a study several years ago called Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER), in which various models were compared to ordinary preschool approaches. PCER found that only a few models did better than their control groups, but there was a clear pattern to the ones that did. These were models that provided teachers with extensive professional development and materials with a definite structure designed to build vocabulary, phonemic awareness, early math concepts, and school skills. They were not just early introduction of kindergarten, but focused on play, themes, rhymes, songs, stories, and counting games with specific purposes well understood by teachers.

In a new R & D effort, innovators might be asked to create new, practical models, perhaps based on the PCER findings, and evaluate them in rigorous studies. Within a few years, we'd have many proven approaches to preschool, ones that would justify the optimism being expressed by politicians of all stripes.

Historically, preschool is one of the few areas of educational practice or policy in which politicians and the public consider evidence to have much relevance. Perhaps if we get this one right, they will begin to wonder, if evidence is good for four year olds, why shouldn't we consult it for the rest of education policy? If evidence is to become important for all of education, perhaps it has to begin with a small child leading us.