PHILADELPHIA (December 14, 2020) – A new report released today is the first independent, statewide evaluation of the impact of the Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts Program (PA PKC) on children’s early learning and kindergarten readiness. Conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with support from the William Penn Foundation, the evaluation shows that children who participated in PA PKC had significantly higher levels of language and math skills in kindergarten, compared to peers with no prior early childhood education experience in the two years before kindergarten. These differences were equivalent to an increase of approximately four to five months of learning for the PA PKC participants, which for young children is a substantial difference in skills development.
“Overall, our evaluation found consistent positive effects from participation in Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts on children’s language and math outcomes, which have been shown to be strong predictors of subsequent academic achievement,” said Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, senior research scientist and research professor at the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill and the principal investigator leading the study. “Additionally, the results showed meaningful differences between PA PKC participants and non-participants, suggesting that experiences with Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts may provide an important buffer for children who may otherwise have fewer school readiness opportunities prior to kindergarten.”
Given that the differences between PA PKC participants and non-participants were evident during the second half of the kindergarten year, the results suggest that the effects of prekindergarten participation persist into the start of elementary school.
The evaluation also identified areas of opportunity to improve the program and impact additional school readiness factors. PA PKC is a state-funded pre-kindergarten program to help 3- and 4-year-old children gain school readiness skills. More than 25,000 children currently participate in PA PKC.
“Pre-K Counts is an integral part of the early learning system in Pennsylvania,” said Janet Haas, M.D., Board Chair of the William Penn Foundation. “The evidence now backing this promising program should give residents confidence that Pre-K Counts generates important learning gains that boost children’s kindergarten performance. We will continue to support efforts to build on the program’s strengths.”
The study is among a small but growing number of evaluations of state-funded pre-kindergarten programs across the country. UNC-Chapel Hill has conducted similar studies in Georgia and North Carolina, which showed similar overall findings to the Pennsylvania evaluation. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has also conducted state pre-kindergarten studies.
“The finding of persistent effects is good news for Pennsylvania and the nation and underlines the importance of adequately investing in strong programs,” said W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D., Senior Co-Director of NIEER at Rutgers University. “Pre-K Counts has higher standards than most other state-funded pre-K programs across the country. As states struggle with the pandemic and its budget impacts, the nation must find ways to support essential investments in effective programs.”
“Since PA PKC was implemented in 2007, stakeholders have been interested in the program’s outcomes for children. This study demonstrates positive outcomes and affirms how important Pre-K Counts is in terms of academic achievement. We want to thank the University of North Carolina and the William Penn Foundation for providing the opportunity to evaluate the program,” said Tracey Campanini, Deputy Secretary for the Office of Child Development and Early Learning in Pennsylvania. “Our office is working every day to help children across the commonwealth reach for their potential. The findings of this study will allow us to better focus our efforts.”
Language and math skills, in which PA PKC participants demonstrated significant gains, are the school readiness skills shown to most strongly predict subsequent academic achievement.
The evaluation also revealed that the program, in contrast with some pre-k programs in other regions, did not show impacts on other school readiness factors, such as social skills, cognitive processes and additional language and literacy measures.
“Even the most carefully planned and designed programs and systems must be evaluated to ensure they have maximum positive impact — children’s earliest years are too important to skip this step,” Haas said. “We look forward to continuing our support of early learning to make sure Pennsylvania children are provided the strongest pre-kindergarten experiences.”
While the study found benefits for all PA PKC program participants compared to non-participants, only 26% of children had been in the program for two years, making it difficult for teachers to sufficiently differentiate instruction and to produce evidence of stronger effects for children who attended PA PKC for two years starting as a 3-year-old than for those who attended for a single year starting as a 4-year-old. In addition, researchers noted that teachers may not have the resources to differentiate instruction for 4-year-olds in their second year in the program, so that children experience additive benefits from a second year.
Peisner-Feinberg said: “The results suggest a need for additional attention to the professional development of teachers, equipping them with the necessary skills and resources so that they are able to provide instruction to help ensure that children benefit fully from a second year in Pre-K Counts.”
The study was conducted in kindergarten during the 2018-19 school year with children who had attended PA PKC in the 2017-18 school year. The study sample included 597 children, 178 classrooms, 51 schools, and 28 school districts statewide. The study was not affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The research team also completed a companion study examining local variations in how PA PKC providers implemented the program. Among the implementation study’s findings was evidence that administrators with programs serving a higher proportion of 3-year-olds faced greater implementation challenges. The companion study also identified communication issues with families who speak languages other than English as being an underlying factor contributing to a variety of implementation challenges.
PA PKC aims to help reduce educational disparities by providing high-quality pre-kindergarten for children who lack opportunities or reside in environments that place them at risk of school failure. PA PKC spaces are offered in school districts, Head Start, Department of Education privately licensed nursery schools, and high-quality childcare settings. Children attend 180 days per year, with either half- or full-day options. The program guidelines include several standards consistent with high quality, including teacher qualifications, curriculum and instruction, screening and assessment, classroom self-assessments, and family engagement.
About the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s first public university, is a global higher education leader known for innovative teaching, research and public service. A member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, Carolina regularly ranks as the best value for academic quality in U.S. public higher education. Now in its third century, the University offers 77 bachelor’s, 107 master’s, 65 doctorate and seven professional degree programs through 14 schools, including the College of Arts & Sciences. Every day, faculty, staff and students shape their teaching, research and public service to meet North Carolina’s most pressing needs in every region and all 100 counties. Carolina’s 341,972 alumni live in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. Territories and 159 countries.
About William Penn Foundation
The William Penn Foundation, founded in 1945 by Otto and Phoebe Haas, is dedicated to improving the quality of life in the Greater Philadelphia region through efforts that increase educational opportunities for children from low-income families, ensure a sustainable environment, foster creativity that enhances civic life, and advance philanthropy in the Philadelphia region. In 2020, the Foundation granted more than $117 million to support vital efforts in the region.
About Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning
The Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) administers home visiting, child care, child care assistance, early intervention and pre-kindergarten programs funded through the Pennsylvania Departments of Education and Human Services. To increase access to high-quality early learning services, OCDEL sets quality program standards, comprehensive accountability, and family engagement to help child and families reach their full potential.
Michael Hobbs, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Kelsey Ruane, William Penn Foundation
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