New Study Finds Abbott Preschools Cut Achievement Gap

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – A new study of New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program shows that children in the state’s most disadvantaged communities who participate in the program continue to make significant gains in literacy, language and math and that two years of preschool dramatically increases their learning.

The study released today also finds notable advances in classroom quality in the Abbott Preschool Program, whether the pre-K program took place in a public school or private child care setting. The Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study (APPLES) was conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University.

“One of the goals of mandating the Abbott pre-K program was to help underprivileged children close the achievement gap,” said Ellen Frede, NIEER Co-Director and principal author of the study. “As such, there is a great deal of interest in whether it is effective in helping children enter kindergarten with the knowledge, skills and dispositions that will lead to success in school. The results presented here provide clear evidence that by participating in a high-quality program, regardless of auspice, children are improving in literacy and math through the end of their kindergarten year.”

The study estimated the effects of preschool education programs on kindergartners’ academic skills and evaluated classroom quality. Children were tested on math, vocabulary and early literacy skills.

Study findings include:

  • The substantial gains made in language, literacy and math while children were in preschool were largely sustained during the kindergarten year. In math, the children who attended Abbott pre-K continued to outperform those who did not, maintaining nearly all their initial advantage through the end of kindergarten. For literacy, those who did not go to preschool closed 18 percent of the gap between their scores and the national average in vocabulary, while those who had attended preschool closed more than 50 percent of the gap.
  • Children who attended preschool for two years at both age 3 and 4 significantly outperform those who attend for only one year at age 4, and both groups of pre-K attendees outperformed those who do not attend at all. The gains in language and math from two years are quite large, nearly double for language and 70 percent larger for math.
  • Comparing classroom quality across years, in 2006 almost 90 percent of the classrooms scored above the average score found in 2000. Areas most likely to be directly related to child learning, such as language and reasoning activities, interactions, and program structure now score in the good to excellent range. Less progress appears to have been made in improving teaching practices specifically related to children’s learning in math, suggesting the need for further emphasis on professional development in teaching math.

“The study is significant nationally given the growing trend for states to provide preschool education for their children,” she said. According to NIEER’s State of Preschool Yearbook 2006, 38 states enrolled nearly 950,000 children in prekindergarten programs. It recognized New Jersey’s as one of the highest quality preschool programs in the nation. Frede said that only high-quality preschool education has been proven to reduce the achievement gap for children.

“New Jersey’s financial commitment to high-quality preschool is unprecedented nationwide,” said New Jersey Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy. “We have long known that it gives children a leg up, both in starting school and throughout their lives. This report gives us additional evidence that this is an extremely worthwhile investment.”

Enrollment in the Abbott preschool program has increased dramatically since its inception in 1999. In 2005-2006, the seventh year, the Abbott districts served more than 40,500 3- and 4-year-old children in preschool. For the purposes of the classroom quality portion of the study, classroom observations were made in 104 public school classrooms, 176 private child care center classrooms and 25 Head Start classrooms. The sample size used to study the learning gains made and retained by the children was a total of 2,356 children. The sample size used in the first part of the study was 766 kindergarten children who attended Abbott preschool and 778 4-year-old children in Abbott preschool in 2005-2006. The longitudinal portion of the study included the same 766 kindergarteners who attended Abbott preschool as the treatment group and 246 children who did not attend any preschool as the comparison group.

Jacqueline Jones, Assistant Commissioner for Early Childhood in the Division of Early Childhood Education at the New Jersey Department of Education said the study findings underscore the benefits of a high-quality early education and show that the Abbott preschool programs steadily increase student learning.

“New Jersey’s Abbott preschools have among the highest standards for quality of any state-funded preschool program,” she said. “These study results show that the investment being made in the education of these young children is paying off.”

“Policy makers across the country are making substantial investments in pre-kindergarten – over $1.2 billion in new state funds over the past three years. They are recognizing the value of this investment in their youngest citizens,” said Sara Watson, Senior Officer, The Pew Charitable Trusts. “The New Jersey findings demonstrate that high quality early learning programs can truly prepare children for academic achievement. Quality prekindergarten is helping to create a strong future workforce that is capable of dealing with the challenges of a competitive global market.”

The study measured the effects of the Abbott preschools on children’s learning using two rigorous methods. One provides the strongest controls for possible differences between pre-K attendees and non-attendees, but it can provide estimates of the pre-K program’s effects only at kindergarten entry. The other not only provides estimates at kindergarten entry, but also allows for continued comparisons over time. The two research methods, together with the classroom quality data, make for an exceptionally strong study according to Frede, who, prior to returning to The College of New Jersey and re-joining NIEER, directed the state’s early childhood program.

Frede noted that the observed improvements in classroom quality are consistent with the size and pattern of gains found for children’s learning. Also, the consistency in results between the two research methods used to study children’s gains increases confidence in the results. In fact, she said that the results suggest that the longitudinal study tended to underestimate children’s learning gains from the Abbott pre-K program.

In addition to Frede, the study was authored by Kwanghee Jung, W. Steven Barnett, Cynthia Lamy and Alexandra Figueras, with the support of the New Jersey Department of Education as part of its Early Learning Improvement Consortium and The Pew Charitable Trusts. A full copy of the report can be found at:

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The National Institute for Early Education Research (, 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 is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life. We partner with a diverse range of donors, public and private organizations and concerned citizens who share our commitment to fact-based solutions and goal-driven investments to improve society.

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