Preschool Matters Today

Instructional alignment for sustaining the prekindergarten boost: Early findings from Boston


November 8, 2019
AUTHORS: Christina Weiland, Meghan McCormick, JoAnn Hsueh, Jason Sachs, Catherine Snow, Michelle Maier, Rebecca Unterman, and Anna Shapiro

Recently, our research team released findings from a set of studies on the Boston Public Schools Prekindergarten Program that examined whether and under what conditions the boost from their prekindergarten program lasts through third grade.  Findings are summarized in both a recent policy brief and in a piece at Brooking’s Brown Center Chalkboard.  In short, we found that substantial prekindergarten advantages persisted when students competed for prekindergarten seats in high-quality elementary schools, as defined by the school’s third grade test scores, and not otherwise.  Our findings are consistent with an emerging story around the country – what happens after prekindergarten seems to matter for sustaining the prekindergarten boost.

Importantly, the set of studies just released describe the effects of the Boston program before the district reformed its K-2 curriculum and teacher professional development to intentionally align with its high-quality prekindergarten program.  In this blog post, we describe early results from an in-process longitudinal study, jointly funded by the Institute of Education Sciences and Arnold Ventures, examining whether the effects of prekindergarten are sustained through elementary school and identifying the factors that predict a lasting boost after Boston’s K-2 curriculum and teacher professional development reforms.

Boston’s Focus reforms.  Nationally, there has been concern about “pushing down” instructional practices more appropriate for older children into younger and younger grades.  Boston’s approach is exactly the opposite – it aims to push key strengths of its prekindergarten program “up” through second grade.  Examples include a focus on theme-based, rich content that builds student background knowledge and critical thinking; project-based work with connections across subject areas; play-based, intentional instruction; small group and student-directed activities (rather than a predominance of whole-group activities); differentiation of instruction to limit repetition of content students have already learned; and training, coaching, and monthly curriculum-focused seminars for teachers.

Concerned about sustaining the prekindergarten boost and about improving K-2 instructional quality, Boston began rolling out its reforms in 2013.  The district couldn’t just purchase a curriculum shown to build on prekindergarten gains because there are no proven prekindergarten through third grade curriculum and teacher professional development models available in the United States.  Boston developed their own P-2 approach, called Focus on Early Learning, and has made it publicly available online at no cost to other districts and schools.

Our study identifying the factors that sustain the prekindergarten boost.  In fall 2016, to study these reforms, we started following a sample of 307 entering prekindergarten students recruited from 20 Boston elementary schools.  In fall 2017, from these students’ kindergarten classrooms, we added 264 children to the study sample who were new to the Boston Public Schools.  When they were four, these children had attended a mix of other center-based preschool programs, home-based daycare, and care by family members and other adults.  We measured students’ language, literacy, math, executive function, and socio-emotional skills in the fall and spring of kindergarten.  We also collected extensive data on their kindergarten classroom experiences, including fidelity to the Focus on Early Learning curriculum, general quality, and time spent on different instructional tasks.

Preliminary findings.  So far, we have found that whether the prekindergarten boost lasts through the end of kindergarten depends both on which skills we examine and on instructional alignment.  At kindergarten entry, Boston prekindergarten attenders have stronger school readiness skills than children who attended other center-based preschool programs or had no formal preschool experience.  All children gain in their skills in kindergarten. But the prekindergarten boost is more strongly sustained on broadband, unconstrained skills than on narrower, more constrained skills.  Vocabulary is an example of an unconstrained skill, one which we continue to build throughout our lifetime. In contrast, letter naming fluency is an example of a constrained skill, one that most children master in the early elementary years.  Importantly, the Boston Focus on Early Learning curriculum and PD model emphasizes time teaching both types of skills in literacy and math instruction, recognizing that both are fundamental to later academic achievement.  For example, we find that in Boston prekindergarten classrooms, substantially more language and literacy instructional time is spent on teaching unconstrained than constrained skills.  In kindergarten in Boston, about equal instructional time is spent on unconstrained and constrained literacy skills.

We also find that Boston students who have more aligned instructional experiences across prekindergarten and kindergarten demonstrate larger gains in unconstrained language skills over time. This means that students appear to perform better across the transition to elementary school when instruction in kindergarten intentionally builds on prekindergarten instruction, limiting redundancy and supporting continued learning gains for students at all skill levels.

Take-aways.  Our work studying Focus on Early Learning is purely correlational and we cannot claim to know with confidence  whether the reforms caused any student benefits.  This is a question that we will be aiming to directly tackle in our ongoing work and partnership with the Boston Public Schools.  But taken together, our recently completed Boston studies and in-process work add to the national conversation about how to sustain the prekindergarten boost.  Nationally and in Boston in prior years, most of the preschool catch-up effect seems to occur in kindergarten.  Districts, schools, researchers, and policymakers accordingly need to take a hard look at what happens after prekindergarten and pinpoint under what conditions the benefits of large-scale public prekindergarten programs lastWe also need to develop and test the next generation of P-3 models so that we can re-design elementary schools to build on the prekindergarten boost.