By Jason Hustedt
With NIEER and University of Delaware colleagues, I recently looked at effects of the New Mexico PreK program in an Early Childhood Research Quarterly journal article. Results of our study show good news for young children in New Mexico. The program produces overall benefits in each school readiness content area we studied – language, literacy, and math. This echoes what we’ve learned from research in other states. More than 15 years into this area of inquiry, pre-K research itself has matured, just as the children involved in our studies have grown. Researchers are asking increasingly complex questions. For example: what works best, and for which groups of children?
In New Mexico, we were interested in seeing if there were different outcomes for different racial/ethnic groups. Because New Mexico is highly diverse, our study sample is relatively unique in including large numbers of Hispanic and Native American children. We found that all groups of children in our study – White, Hispanic, and Native American children – showed improved literacy skills after attending pre-K. In terms of language and math skills, White and Hispanic children showed gains while Native American children did not.
This means that not all groups benefited equally. Only one prior pre-K study, in Oklahoma, has examined results separately for Native American children. And while Native American children in Tulsa benefited relative to White children, that was not the case in New Mexico. Still other studies of early childhood programs highlight comparatively greater benefits to Hispanic or Black children. However, a fairly consistent finding is that there are differences in pre-K outcomes linked with race and ethnicity.
What’s the reason for these apparent differences? This question is hard to answer based on the current state of research. Ways that families and communities experience poverty, disadvantage, and racial injustice vary in different areas of the country. State populations differ. For example, pre-K studies examining racial/ethnic group differences typically examine benefits to Black children, but in New Mexico only 2% of our sample was Black. Further, different pre-K programs may hire teachers who are more attuned to children’s cultural or linguistic experiences. As with all research in this area, findings from our study come with qualifications. We used data from an earlier point in the New Mexico PreK initiative, and it has now grown. Also, state pre-K models and policies differ in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and other states where research has been done.
A key take-home message is about equity. A main goal of pre-K programs across the U.S. is to help level the playing field so children enter kindergarten ready for success. Yet it appears that some groups of pre-K children may receive greater benefits. Including New Mexico-specific data in the growing evidence base about the effectiveness of pre-K is a valuable addition. But in order to better promote equitable outcomes for all children, continued attention and finer-grained data are needed to focus on the conditions where children are most successful. This is likely to include collection of data on child poverty, classroom experiences, and community resources as additional pieces of the puzzle. There is substantial evidence that children benefit from participating in pre-K, but we need to ensure that all children benefit in a more equitable way.
Jason Hustedt is an Associate Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences and Research Director at the Delaware Institute for Excellence in Early Childhood, both at the University of Delaware. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at NIEER.