Study: State preschool improves social and language skills, but not math

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Preliminary results from an evaluation of Illinois’ state-funded  Preschool for All program show that children who participate make significant gains in language and social  skills by the time they enter kindergarten.

The state-commissioned study had previously been put on hold because of delayed payments due to budget problems.

Preschool For All lost 8 percent of its enrollment between 2009 and 2010 school years after a 10 percent state funding cut, but Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is asking state legislators to restore money in upcoming fiscal year  2012.

The study by the Erikson Institute found that:

  • Low-income preschoolers started out with worse scores than the overall sample of students. By kindergarten, they made significant gains, but were still behind other students.
  • Overall, students began preschool with below-average vocabularies, but above-average social skills and behavior scores.
  • By kindergarten, children’s vocabulary skills were slightly above average overall, while children from low-income families had nearly average scores.
  • Low-income students’ “attention and task persistence” scores rose from average to above-average.
  • Math skills showed no improvement between preschool and kindergarten.

It isn’t clear how Preschool For All stacks up against preschool programs in other states. Researchers hope to tackle that question in the next few months.

Better school readiness

“The results show significant improvements in all income groups, and most importantly, the children from low-income families showed positive gains, which means they were better prepared for kindergarten,” says Jana Fleming, the study’s principal investigator and the director of the Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy at Erikson Institute.

Children were assessed twice: during the fall in which they began pre-kindergarten in 2009, and again a year later as they were starting kindergarten in 2010.

The study excluded programs in the Chicago Public Schools because the district had just completed another evaluation, the Chicago Program Evaluation Project. “A decision was made not to put the programs through another evaluation so soon after that one,” Fleming says.

More results are likely soon, Fleming says. Some children were also assessed in the spring of 2010, as well as in the fall, to gauge how much learning they lost during the summer before they started kindergarten.

The study also evaluated classroom quality, with measures such as the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, which rates teacher-student interactions.

“The data we’ve released so far was our first shot at analyzing the big questions people had,” Fleming says. “We have a dozen or so (additional) questions we are hoping to be able to answer.”

Initially, the evaluation was to cover parent training and birth-to-3 Prevention Initiative programs, but that research has been put on hold because of uncertainty over the state budget.

Due to lack of funding, the study did not include a control group, which would have allowed researchers to compare students who attended state preschool programs with children who did not – showing that the gains were actually caused by the preschool program rather than by other factors.