New review investigates long term effects of preschool
The Sector > Research > New review investigates the long term effects of early childhood education

New review investigates the long term effects of early childhood education

by Freya Lucas

May 08, 2024

A new review from Teachers College, Columbia University, University of Virginia, University of California-Irvine, and University of Delaware has revealed the varied impact of preschool programs on long term school success. 


Unsettled Science on longer-run effects of early education examined published evaluations of well-established, publicly funded preschool programs in the United States of America using rigorous designs. 


The four evaluations reported a mix of positive, negative, and no differences in the school performance of children who did and did not attend preschool programs in elementary school and beyond. 


This study challenges prevalent assumptions within the field, emphasising the importance of identifying the key factors that foster the development of skills crucial for success in both academic endeavors and life, particularly among children from disadvantaged backgrounds.


“Preschool programs have long been hailed as effective interventions, yet our study reveals a more nuanced reality,” senior author of the study Research Professor Margaret Burchinal said. 


Recent evaluations, including this study, have challenged public opinion about preschool, which has, up until recently, been shaped by two widely recognised randomised trials that found significant long-term benefits from attending preschool, as well as other less rigorous studies that suggest positive short-term effects and, in a few cases, positive long-term outcomes. 


However, recent high-quality randomised evaluations of public preschool programs have produced conflicting evidence. While these evaluations demonstrate positive impacts on academic skills at school entry, it remains unclear whether these programs improve long-term academic success and beyond. 


Two evaluations of scaled-up pre-kindergarten programs showed mixed results. The Boston program improved high school graduation rates, while the Tennessee program led to worse outcomes in elementary school. Two other evaluations found no differences in outcomes between attendees and non-attendees. This highlights the need for more research on effective preschool practices.

These four studies paint a somewhat less rosy picture of preschool’s ability to enhance opportunities for children than prior studies. The authors argue that the optimistic findings from the earlier widely cited random-assignment studies from over 50 years ago may not carry over to today’s programs. 


Both programs served small numbers of children, and children who lost the entrance lotteries did not have access to many of the safety-net services and childcare options available to parents today. 


Although most recent evaluations show public preschool programs improve literacy and math skills at school entry, that advantage fades quickly after children enter school.  The less rigorous studies of scaled-up programs typically rely on limited information about attendees and nonattenders, thereby making it possible that nonattenders differed from attendees on important other factors – such as parenting beliefs and practices – that could account for findings favoring the attendees.   


“Our review suggests that researchers should be more cautious when making policy recommendations regarding the effects of public pre-k programs,” Assistant Professor Tyler Watts said. 


“At present, the best research studies make it hard to predict the long-term effects of these investments. Certainly, we agree that early childhood education is an important area for public investment. Still, we cannot confidently claim that all public pre-k programs produce positive long-term results.”


Access the findings here

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