Journal Article

State Prekindergarten Effects on Early Learning at Kindergarten Entry

An Analysis of Eight State Programs

child looking at books

State-funded prekindergarten (preK) programs are increasingly common across the country. This study estimated the effects of eight state-funded preK programs (Arkansas, California, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia) on children’s learning using a regression discontinuity design. These programs vary with respect to the population served, program design, and context. Weighted average effect sizes from instrumental variables analyses across these states are 0.24 for language (vocabulary), 0.44 for math, and 1.10 for emergent literacy. Differences in effect sizes by domain suggest that preK programs should attend more to enhancing learning beyond simple literacy skills. State preK programs appear to differ in their effects. We offer recommendations for more rigorous, regular evaluation.

“We studied a diverse array of public preschool programs and they all produced large short-term effects on the simplest, easiest to acquire skills,” the report states. “But on average programs had much more modest effects on language acquisition; in some states estimated language effects were near zero.”

The pattern raises concerns, the report notes, because language development in the preschool years is important and large boosts to deep learning in language and math are more likely to lead to long-term gains in achievement and school success.

“Our study adds to the evidence that public pre-K can improve learning and development for both disadvantaged and general populations, at least in the short term,” the report states. “It also raises concerns about the need to improve quality. State pre-K program effectiveness cannot simply be assumed but should be measured regularly with a goal of continuous improvement.”

“States should not rely on assessment of narrow literacy skills alone…,” the report states. “Monitoring and evaluation of pre-K program effectiveness should…include language, mathematics, and other measures predictive of long-term achievement and school success.”

View Article

The Authors

W. Steven (Steve) Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and the founder and Senior Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. Dr. Barnett’s work primarily focuses on public policies regarding early childhood education, child care, and child development.

Kwanghee Jung, an assistant research professor, brings to NIEER expertise in quantitative data analysis and is working on studies that analyze the effect of participation in state-funded preschool on children’s learning and development.

Allison Friedman-Krauss is an Assistant Research Professor at NIEER where she is also the Associate Director for Policy Research and Director of the Infant and Toddler Policy Research Center. 

In her work, Dr. Frede applies what she has learned throughout her varied career in early childhood education, including experience as a teacher of ages 0-8, curriculum and professional development specialist at the HighScope Foundation, teacher educator at The College of New Jersey, researcher, pre-k administrator for the New Jersey Department of Education, education lead in a large Head Start grantee and early learning lead at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Dr. Milagros Nores is the Co-Director for Research and Associate Research Professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). With a profound expertise in early childhood evaluation, informing data-driven policy and programming, cost and benefits of early interventions, evaluation design, equity, and English language learners, she has established herself as a leading researcher in the field of early care and education.