The experiences of children in early childhood learning settings are among the most-studied aspects in the field of educational research. It’s clear: Children who attend high-quality early childhood programs experience academic growth on a variety of measures, compared to children who do not attend pre-kindergarten programs.
But the studies have also uncovered disparities and have pointed to areas in which educators can improve early childhood programs.
Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, a senior research scientist and research professor at the UNC School of Education, has led many of the studies that have contributed to understandings of the benefits — and the challenges — of early childhood programs.
Among the studies she and her teams of researchers — consisting primarily of researchers from the UNC-Chapel Hill-based Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, where she had previously been based — have conducted three statewide evaluations of pre-kindergarten programs, among the largest of any studies of the effects of pre-K experiences. Peisner-Feinberg is a developmental psychologist with training in public policy. During more than 30 years of work, her research has focused on the quality of early education experiences and the effects on children, particularly for children from low-income families, dual-language learners, and children in at-risk circumstances.
Peisner-Feinberg’s statewide evaluations of early-childhood programs in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia demonstrate that children benefit from attending high-quality pre-kindergarten programs. They also have revealed areas in which policymakers, educational administrators, and educators can work to build on those benefits.
Following are summaries of the evaluations of three state pre-K programs led by Peisner-Feinberg and what can be learned from them.
Georgia: Program and study overview
Georgia’s Pre-K Program is a state-funded universal pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, serving children in a variety of settings, including local school systems, private providers, and blended Head Start/pre-K classrooms. The no-fee program serves children from all income levels (Peisner-Feinberg, Van Manen, Mokrova, & Burchinal, 2019).
The program operates on a school-year model, with instruction for 6.5 hours a day. Class sizes are limited to 20-22 children with a lead and assistant teacher. Lead teachers are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a related field. Assistant teachers are required to have at least a Child Development Associate credential.
Program guidelines provide standards for classroom instruction, child assessment, and other services. The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning oversees the program, and provides consultation, technical assistance, and monitoring.
The evaluation team, led by Peisner-Feinberg, conducted a series of studies of Georgia’s Pre-K Program over a decade. In one study, the researchers used a regression discontinuity design (RDD), the strongest type of quasi-experimental research design for examining effects of treatments (Peisner-Feinberg, Schaaf, LaForett, Hildebrandt & Sideris, 2014).
The study compared two groups of children based on the age requirement for the pre-K program: 1) the treated group — children who completed Georgia’s Pre-K Program the previous year and were entering kindergarten in the study year, and 2) the untreated group — children who were not eligible for the Georgia Pre-K Program the previous year and were entering pre-K in the study year.
The two groups were equivalent on many important characteristics, given that families of both groups chose Georgia’s Pre-K program. The only difference was whether children’s birth dates fell before or after the cut-off date for eligibility for the pre-K program.
Georgia: Summary of study results
The RDD study demonstrated that children who participated in Georgia’s Pre-K Program had significantly improved school readiness skills.
- • Participation had significant effects on most measures, including language and literacy skills, math skills, and general knowledge.
• The positive effects of program participation were found for boys and girls and children from families of different income levels across all significant outcome measures.
• The positive effects were found for children with differing levels of English language proficiency with one exception. Effects were found on phonological awareness skills for children who were fluent in English, with no differences for children with no or limited fluency. The study authors suggest phonological awareness concepts involve more complex language skills that may require a higher level of language proficiency to learn. Therefore, children at lower proficiency levels may not have been developmentally ready regardless of whether they were attending pre-K.
• There were no program effects on measures of children’s vocabulary skills or social skills.
Peisner-Feinberg and her team also followed a sample of more than 1,100 children who participated in Georgia’s Pre-K for a longitudinal study, tracking their performance through third grade (Peisner-Feinberg et al, 2019; Soliday Hong, Zadrozny, Walker, Love, Osborne, Owen, Jenkins & Peisner-Feinberg, 2021). Among their findings:
- • Overall, the children in the study performed near the mean of national norms on most standardized measures by the end of third grade, with the exception of vocabulary and reading comprehension.
• Participating children displayed a pattern of growth during pre-K and kindergarten on most measures, but that growth was not sustained through third grade.
• Children who were English language learners showed similar patterns of early growth for skills in English, but showed decreases over time for most language and literacy skills in Spanish.
• Some child and classroom factors that predicted differences in growth on these measures over time included language proficiency and classroom quality.
• The quality of teacher-child instructional interactions varied across different domains, with slightly higher scores in pre-K than in subsequent grades.
• Comparisons in third grade with children who did not attend Georgia’s Pre-K showed higher literacy and executive function skills for pre-K participants, but no differences on other measures.
Pennsylvania: Program and study overview
Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts (PA PKC) is a state-funded pre-kindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-olds to help them gain school readiness skills. The goal of the program is to help reduce educational disparities by providing high-quality pre-kindergarten for children who otherwise lack educational opportunities or live in environments that place them at risk of school failure (Peisner-Feinberg, 2020).
PA PKC services are offered in school districts, Head Start, privately licensed nursery schools, and high-quality child care settings. Children attend 180 days a year, with either half- or full-day options. The program guidelines include a number of standards, including teacher qualifications, curriculum and instruction, screening and assessment, classroom self-assessments, and family engagement.
Peisner-Feinberg and her team conducted the first statewide evaluation of the PA PKC program. The Impact Study, conducted in kindergarten during the 2018-2019 school year, compared former PA PKC participants to similar children who had no preschool experience (Peisner-Feinberg, Soliday Hong, Yazejian, Zadrozny & Burchinal, 2020). The study sample was drawn from 335 of the 499 school districts that had data for children enrolled in PA PKC programs.
Pennsylvania: Summary of study results
The Impact Study sought to determine if children who attended PA PKC had higher levels of academic and social skills in kindergarten than children who did not, whether kindergarten skills were different for children who attended PA PKC for one year or two years, and whether program characteristic differences affected children’s outcomes.
Among the findings:
• There were positive effects of PA PKC participation on children’s language and math outcomes. The results showed no differences on other literacy, executive function, and social skills measures.
• These effects were not different for children who attended for one year (enrolling at age 4) or for two years (enrolling at age 3).
• The results showed meaningful differences in the months of learning gains for language and math skills.
Overall, Peisner-Feinberg and team reported, there were consistent positive effects of program attendance on children’s language and math outcomes, regardless of initial age of enrollment in PA PKC. For children who participated in PA PKC, the differences were equivalent to an increase of approximately 4-5 months of learning, a substantial difference for young children, the researchers said. These findings are especially important as these are the school readiness skills that most strongly predict subsequent academic achievement.
Peisner-Feinberg and her team also conducted an Implementation Study of the Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts program, examining the experiences and challenges associated with conducting pre-K programs (Peisner-Feinberg, Burchinal, Soliday Hong, Yazejian, Shelton-Ormond & Foster, 2020). The findings from the Implementation Study, combined with those from the Impact Study, offered directions for improvement of PA PKC:
- • A lack of findings for measures of literacy skills, social skills, and executive function suggested additional areas to examine for potential professional development and quality improvement activities.
• To sustain the gains made in pre-K, it may be important to examine the extent of P-3 alignment across grades, while continuing to base pre-K practices on developmentally appropriate early learning standards.
• There’s a need for greater attention to classroom practices that differentiate learning for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in these same classrooms.
North Carolina: Program and study overview
North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten program — called NC Pre-K — is a state-funded program for eligible 4-year-olds designed to bolster their school readiness skills. Children are eligible primarily based on age and family income. Children must be four years old by Aug. 31 of the program year and gross family income must be at or below 75% of the state’s median income. Within a local program, up to 20% of age-eligible children with higher family incomes may be enrolled if the child has at least one of the following factors: limited English proficiency, identified developmental disability, chronic health condition, or educational need based on developmental screening or an Individualized Education Plan (Peisner-Feinberg, 2014).
NC Pre-K provides funding for programs in a variety of settings, including public schools, Head Start, and private child care centers.
NC Pre-K programs operate on a school day and school calendar basis for 6.5 hours a day and 36 weeks a year. Sites are expected to meet a variety of standards regarding curriculum, screening and assessment, training and education levels for teachers and administrators, class size, adult-to-child ratios, state child care licensing levels, and provision of other services.
Class sizes are restricted to 18 children with a lead and assistant teacher. Lead teachers are required to hold or be working toward a state Birth through Kindergarten license or the equivalent. Assistant teachers are required to hold or be working toward an associate degree in early childhood education or child development, or a Child Development Associate credential.
Using a randomized control trial
Peisner-Feinberg and her research team have conducted multiple studies of NC Pre-K since its inception in 2001.
Earlier evaluations of NC Pre-K generally found a wide range of positive effects of children’s participation in the program for measures of school readiness and early elementary academic and social outcomes.
The three most-recent companion studies conducted by Peisner-Feinberg and team included a feasibility study and culminated with a two-year evaluation of NC Pre-K using a small-scale randomized control trial (RCT) evaluation (Peisner-Feinberg, Kuhn, Zadrozny, Foster & Burchinal, 2020; Peisner-Feinberg, Van Manen, & Mokrova, 2018; Peisner-Feinberg, Zadrozny, Kuhn & Van Manen, 2019).
The RCT study, conducted from 2017-2019, was designed to follow children from pre-K into elementary school to examine the effects of NC Pre-K participation. Peisner-Feinberg and team were able to use RCT methods by comparing 582 children from two counties who were randomly assigned to either NC Pre-K (473 children in the “treatment” group) with children who were randomly assigned to waitlists for entry into NC Pre-K programs (109 children in the “control” group). Among the study participants were 163 children who were Spanish-speaking dual language learners (DLLs), including 132 in the treatment group and 31 in the control group, allowing for evaluation of NC Pre-K participation among DLLs.
North Carolina: Summary of study results
The first year of the study found consistent positive effects on language and literacy skills at the end of pre-K, with better performance for children in the treatment group. Differences were found for vocabulary and letter and word recognition skills. For the subsample of Spanish-speaking DLLs, these effects were found for letter and word recognitions skills and math concepts measured in English.
However, the study did not find significant effects for other measures, including other measures of literacy (written comprehension) and math skills (problem solving), executive function, and parent ratings of social skills and problem behaviors during the pre-K year. In addition, the results from the kindergarten year follow-up showed positive effects on vocabulary skills for DLLs, but fadeout of the pre-K effects for the sample in general.
The limited set of positive findings may be partially explained, the researchers said, by North Carolina’s history of providing early childhood education and family supports directed toward low-income families. The children in the control group may have benefited from services provided through other initiatives, such as North Carolina’s Smart Start program, an effort that supports children from birth through age 5.
Because the study was conducted in two well-resourced counties, families in the control group likely had other opportunities for educational and social supports, Peisner-Feinberg and team said.
Conclusions, suggestions for improvement
Researchers studying statewide pre-K programs consistently find that the programs confer benefits to children (Wong et al. 2008; Peisner-Feinberg et al. 2014; Weiland et al., 2013; Gormley Jr et al, 2005).
Those studies, including statewide evaluations led by Peisner-Feinberg, also point to opportunities to improve early childhood educational experiences for children. As in the Peisner-Feinberg-led evaluations of the Georgia and NC Pre-K Programs, many studies have documented “fadeout,” in which some of the gains children achieve from pre-K experiences disappear during early years of elementary school.
Fadeout was shown in the Georgia evaluation to be particularly strong among DLLs when skills were measured in Spanish. Peisner-Feinberg and her team suggested that because classroom instruction for these children was primarily in English, there may be few resources and little support for children in their home language within learning settings.
Peisner-Feinberg and colleagues, across their statewide evaluations of pre-kindergarten programs, identified a number of interventions and program enhancements aimed at improving children’s experiences within pre-K programs and to reduce fadeout of pre-K’s benefits:
• Implementation of professional development and quality improvement activities for programs for pre-K administrators, teachers, and assistants to improve instruction in literacy, social and executive function skills.
• For programs that target at-risk children, consideration of tiered or targeted instructional approaches for both literacy and math instruction.
• Examine the alignment of curriculum and instruction from pre-kindergarten through third grade in an effort to sustain the gains children experience in pre-K programs.
• Where pre-K programs include 3-year-olds, give greater attention to differentiation of instruction to account for the presence of children in varying developmental stages.
• Mindful of the disparities in educational outcomes for children with lower levels of English language proficiency, seek to provide high-quality classroom experiences for dual language learners in both pre-K and elementary school.
Gormley Jr, W. T., Gayer, T., Phillips, D., & Dawson, B. (2005). The effects of universal pre-K on cognitive development. Developmental Psychology, 41(6), 872-884. DOI:10.1037/0012-16188.8.131.522
Peisner-Feinberg, E., Burchinal, M., Soliday Hong, S., Yazejian, N., Shelton-Ormond, A., & Foster, T. (2020). Implementation of the Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts Program: A Statewide Evaluation. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, School of Education and the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.
Peisner-Feinberg, E., Kuhn, L., Zadrozny, S., Foster, T., & Burchinal, M. (2020). Kindergarten Follow-up Findings from a Small-Scale RCT Study of the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, School of Education.
Peisner-Feinberg, E. S., LaForett, D. R., Schaaf, J. M., Hildebrandt, L. M., Sideris, J., & Pan, Y. (2014) Children’s Outcomes and Program Quality in the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program: 2012-2013 Statewide Evaluation. The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute. Pre-K Eval 2012-2013 Report.pdf.
Peisner-Feinberg, E. S., Schaaf, J. M., LaForett, D. R., Hildebrandt, L.M., & Sideris, J. (2014). Effects of Georgia’s Pre-K Program on children’s school readiness skills: Findings from the 2012–2013 evaluation study. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute
Peisner-Feinberg, E., Soliday Hong, S., Yazejian, N., Zadrozny, S., & Burchinal, M. (2020). Kindergarten Impacts of the Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts Program: A Statewide Evaluation. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, School of Education and the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.
Peisner-Feinberg, E. S., Van Manen, K.W., & Mokrova, I. L. (2018). Variations in Enrollment Practices in the NC Pre-K Program: 2016-2017 Statewide Evaluation. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute.
Peisner-Feinberg, E., Van Manen, K., Mokrova, I., & Burchinal, M. (2019). Children’s Outcomes Through Second Grade: Findings from Year 4 of Georgia’s Pre-K Longitudinal Study, Executive Summary. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute. https://fpg.unc.edu/publications/childrens-outcomes-through-second-grade-findings-year-4-georgias-pre-k-longitudinal
Peisner-Feinberg, E., Zadrozny, S., Kuhn, L., & Van Manen, K. (2019). Effects of the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program: Findings through Pre-K of a Small-Scale RCT Study. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute.
Soliday Hong, S., Zadrozny, S., Walker, J., Love, E.N.G., Osborne, J.D., Owen, J. L., Jenkins, G., & Peisner-Feinberg, E. (2021). Longitudinal Study of Georgia’s Pre-K Program: Third Grade Report. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute.
Weiland, C., & Yoshikawa, H. (2013). Impacts of a prekindergarten program on children’s mathematics, language, literacy, executive function, and emotional skills. Child Development, 84(6), 2112-2130. DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12099
Wong, V.C. Cook, T.S. Barnett, W.S. Jung, K. (2008). An effectiveness-based evaluation of five state pre-kindergarten programs. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 27(1), 122–154. DOI: 10.1002/pam.20310