New Study Shows West Virginia's Pre-K Program Improves Language and Math Abilities of Children of All Backgrounds

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ, Dec. 6--A new study of West Virginia's Early Childhood Education Program for 4-year-olds shows significant improvement in children’s early language, literacy and mathematical development, improvement far greater than shown in a recent national study of the federal Head Start program.

The West Virginia evaluation was part of a larger study of high quality, state-funded prekindergarten programs in five states. The other states were Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

The study showed children in West Virginia gained from attending the preschool program regardless of ethnic background or economic circumstances.

The study, The Effects of West Virginia's Early Education Program on Young Children's School Readiness, was conducted by The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The authors are W. Steven Barnett, Cynthia Lamy and Kwanghee Jung.

"The West Virginia preschool program is producing positive results across multiple measures for the state's children," Barnett said. "The effects found in this study are the first link in a chain that produces the long-term school success and economic benefits," the researchers said.

The study estimated the effects of preschool programs on entering kindergartners' academic skills. Children were tested on math, vocabulary and early literacy skills.

With the cooperation of the West Virginia Department of Education, researchers collected data on 720 preschool and kindergarten children in the fall of 2004.

The NIEER study found that as a result of attending the West Virginia program at age 4:

  • Children showed gains in vocabulary that were 30 percent higher than the gains of children without the program. This translates into an additional three months of progress in vocabulary growth due to the preschool program at age 4. This outcome is particularly important because the measure is indicative of general cognitive abilities and predictive of becoming a successful reader.
  • Preschool increased children's gains in math skills by 80 percent compared to children's growth without the program. Skills tested include basic number concepts, simple addition and subtraction, telling time and counting money.
  • West Virginia's preschool program had strong effects on children's understanding of print concepts. The program produced a 168 percent increase in growth in print awareness among children enrolled compared to growth of children without the program. Children who attended the preschool before entering kindergarten know more letters, more letter-sound associations and are more familiar with words and book concepts.
  • "Early childhood education is a priority for West Virginia evidenced by the unwavering support of educational and political leaders across the state. The West Virginia Board of Education, the Governor, state legislators and teachers should all be commended for the meaningful impacts on children's early literacy and mathematical development," said State Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine. "Our state has sound early childhood education policies in place, some of the country's most qualified early childhood teachers, and perhaps most importantly, leaders that embrace early educational development of all West Virginia children."

    These results come at an opportune time for early education advocates. Earlier this year, the Head Start National Impact Study reported no statistically significant effects for 4-year-olds on vocabulary or early math scores.

    "Using identical or similar tests, the NIEER studies show vocabulary gains three or four times greater than those in the national Head Start study," Barnett said.

    "This difference in outcomes between the two types of programs points to the likely effects of the higher qualifications (and higher compensation) of teachers in state prekindergarten programs compared to Head Start," Barnett and his colleagues wrote. "The state prekindergarten programs we studied do not uniformly differ from Head Start with respect to other characteristics such as length of day or class size." In West Virginia, Head Start classrooms that collaborate with the state program provide highly qualified teachers, but the federal government does not require Head Start program to do so across the nation. With such a requirement, Head Start could be expected to produce gains similar to those found in this study.

    West Virginia and the other states studied almost universally require prekindergarten teachers to be licensed teachers with BA degrees and certification in early childhood education. Head Start requires that 50 percent of teachers have two-year Associates' degrees and the others must have a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential or its equivalent. A CDA represents 120 clock hours of training. Congress is considering Head Start reauthorization legislation that for the first time would require some percentage of teachers to have BAs.

    "The message in our study for people who run state and federal preschool programs is that they need to be of high quality. They need in particular to have highly qualified teachers if they're going to make a real difference for children's school readiness," Barnett said.

    This study shows that West Virginia is making substantial progress toward ensuring that its children are ready to succeed in school by providing a high quality preschool program that is designed to serve all children. "West Virginia is one of the few states that's committed to bringing preschool to all children," Barnett said, "so what's remarkable is that our study found very strong gains in language, early literacy, and mathematics as a result of the preschool program."

    This year, the West Virginia's Early Childhood Education Program is providing its educational benefits to 42 percent of the state's 4-year-olds. It will be available to all 4-year-olds by 2012.

    Most state prekindergarten programs target children who are at elevated risk of school failure —often due to poverty—and programs for these children have been the most studied.

    Less research has been conducted on the impacts of programs for children who are not economically disadvantaged. With a number of states now making prekindergarten education available to all 4-year-olds, the NIEER study sought to address the impact of prekindergarten on children from every economic level.

    West Virginia was one of two states studied that offer services to all children regardless of income. Oklahoma is the other. "When we compared results for children who had subsidized lunches with those who didn't, we found some evidence (most strongly in Oklahoma and South Carolina for print awareness) that the more disadvantaged children made larger gains, though both groups of children gained from pre-k," Barnett said.

    A large body of research shows that high quality preschool programs can lead to increases in school success, higher test scores, fewer school dropouts, higher graduation rates, less special education and even lower crime rates.

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    The National Institute for Early Education Research (www.nieer.org), a unit of the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, supports early childhood education policy by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research. NIEER is supported through grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts and others.

    The Pew Charitable Trusts serves the public interest by providing information, advancing policy solutions and supporting civic life. Based in Philadelphia, with an office in Washington, D.C., the Trusts will invest $204 million in fiscal year 2006 to provide organizations and
    citizens with fact-based research and practical solutions for challenging issues.