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Do reading gains in preschool stick - or fade?

Robin Chenoweth
July 12, 2016

Look at any analysis of education in America, and you will find what educators and researchers have labored years to fix: the achievement gap. Children’s academic performance historically was divided along racial lines. More recently, economic inequality is the greater predictor of which children will succeed in school, and which won’t.

Jumpstart at-risk kids to develop early reading skills, convention said, and those gaps will close.

“That’s the goal of preschool programs in general,” said Shayne Piasta, an associate professor and psychologist at Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology and an expert in early and emergent literacy development. “That’s the goal of Head Start — to have compensatory effects. That’s the goal of providing any targeted or supplemental instruction to preschool kids.”

The United States spends billions each year — $8.6 billion for Head Start and $7 billion for state-funded pre-kindergarten in 2015 — to boost kids at risk for having learning difficulties later on. All this is done in hopes that the children will be on track for the heavy-lifting — learning to read — in elementary school. And studies show that many preschoolers do gain literacy skills.

piasta Shayne Piasta



But whether these or any preschool programs are achieving the goal of reducing learning disparity over the long term is largely unknown.

“Hardly anyone actually tests that,” Piasta said. “There is very, very little rigorous research on curricula measuring the extent to which they reduce achievement gaps when kids enter kindergarten or later on.”

Piasta and her research team received a $3.3 million grant this month from the Institute for Education Sciences to study how effective one supplemental curriculum is at helping kids achieve once they start school.

The study is significant because it will measure the performance of 396 at-risk children, not only in kindergarten but through third grade. Researchers will use a statewide database for four years to track the children’s progress compared to their more-skilled peers — where the gap typically appears.

“This is one of the very few studies that will actually follow both the kids who are eligible and in need of these services as well as some of their peers from the same classrooms,” Piasta said.

Gathering evidence on “fade-out”

The Ohio State research comes on the heels of a much-bandied study showing that gains by preschoolers “faded out” over time at a Tennessee-run pre-K program. The controversial study created a lot of buzz, but Piasta sees that as a call to gather still more evidence.

“On one hand, it’s not realistic to expect early childhood academic benefits to persist unless we continue to provide high quality supports as those kids move into elementary school,” Piasta said. “On the other hand, I think it’s really important that we document the extent to which there are and aren’t lasting benefits so that we do a better job of intervening.’

The curriculum being evaluated in Piasta's study was developed by Nemours, a nonprofit organization in Jacksonville, Florida, founded in the 1930s by philanthropist Alfred du Pont. The group initiated the research-based BrightStart! program to address achievement gaps among children in Duval County. It has since been formalized and made commercially available.

Nemours videos show instructors leading small groups of four-year-olds as they play “letter detective,” using tiny magnifying glasses to search for the letter D in a line-up of letters. Small fingers clutch cards with letters and pictures of dogs. Children sweep their arms to draw giant imaginary letters, then listen for the “d” sound as the instructor reads “Down on the Farm.” Take-home books are doled out to families at the end of the day.

While most supplemental preschool curricula focus on just one skill, the Nemours program is more comprehensive, Piasta said, because it targets all emergent literacy skills, including writing. Nemours trials show that 66 percent of at-risk children in the program move into the average range for emergent literacy skills.

“BrightStart!’s professional development training program helps us to reach greater numbers of children in need,” said Nemours Assistant Director of Research and Evaluation Cynthia Zettler-Greeley, because it arms preschool teachers with materials and techniques that are often hard to come by.

Using teachers and community to teach skills

Nemours typically uses outside instructors to teach preschoolers; the Ohio State study will use classroom teachers themselves. A second leg of the study will use community volunteers, trained by education advocacy group FutureReady Columbus, to teach the curriculum.

“I think that’s a really innovative way of trying to provide extra support to young kids,” Piasta said. “If we find this is an effective way of boosting kids’ emergent literacy skills both when it’s implemented by teachers as well as by someone from the community, well, that’s great news, right?”

With new state and federal programs being funded each year for early childhood education, critics and proponents alike want to know if the investment is paying off.

“Everything I know suggests that the earlier we get in there, the better off kids are going to be,” Piasta said.

“I think it’s important to be able to have evidence of whether something could work. Otherwise we’re just making guesses.”


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