Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Poster Paper: Comparing the Effectiveness of Targeted Curricula in Head Start and Public Pre-k Classrooms

Thursday, November 12, 2015
Riverfront South/Central (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Tutrang Nguyen1, Jade Marcus Jenkins1, Anamarie Auger2 and Thurston Domina1, (1)University of California, Irvine, (2)RAND Corporation
Federal Head Start and state pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs aim to promote school readiness for low-income children, yet evidence concerning the effectiveness of each program remains mixed (Gormley & Gayer, 2005; Weiland & Yoshikawa, 2013). One way in which early childhood education programs can boost the school readiness of low-income and disadvantaged children is through the use of effective preschool curricula. Nearly all Head Start centers use curricula that focus on educating the whole child, while pre-K classrooms implement varied curricula, including whole child, targeted, or unnamed teacher-developed curricula. There are encouraging results from recent studies suggesting that children who receive targeted or content-specific curricula (e.g., literacy or math) during preschool show moderate to large improvements in that targeted content domain (Clements & Sarama, 2008), and no evidence to support commonly used whole child curricula.

Given current efforts at the federal and state levels to expand early childhood education programs, understanding differences between curricula type in addition to program type is essential—especially when investing millions of federal and state dollars each year on curricula for public preschool programs. Comparing the effectiveness of particular curricula in different preschool program settings is especially important for low-income, disadvantaged children, who are likely to benefit most from early educational interventions. Our study examines the effectiveness of targeted curricula and makes direct comparisons between Head Start and pre-K. We use an experimental dataset from the Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Study where pre-K or Head Start classrooms were randomly assigned to implement a content-specific curriculum. We can therefore provide correlational evidence for how targeted, content-specific curricula may interact with program type to affect children’s cognitive and behavioral outcomes.

Our analyses include site fixed effects for random assignment site, and we use inverse propensity score weighting to adjust for observable differences between children in Head Start and pre-K classrooms. Children’s cognitive and social-emotional outcomes include four composite measures that combine several developmentally appropriate and nationally normed instruments, which were assessed by research staff: literacy, math, academic (combining literacy and math measures), and social-emotional. Our coefficient of interest is an interaction between treatment (targeted curriculum) and program type (targeted*pre-k, with Head Start as reference the group). Regression models also include lagged assessment scores, child gender, race, mother/primary caregiver educational level and age, family income, and indicators for employment, marital status, and welfare receipt.

Findings indicate that targeted math curricula improve the academic skills of children in both Head Start and pre-K classrooms. Literacy curricula were found to not have any impacts. We also investigated whether teacher characteristics (gender, race, age, annual salary, teaching experience, highest degree earned) confounded the impact of targeted curricula differentially for Head Start and pre-K classrooms, but did not find evidence in support of this.

Our results indicate that both Head Start and pre-K classrooms benefit from a targeted curriculum. Findings might also support policies that prescribe proven, effective curricula since Head Start and pre-k classrooms currently implement an assortment of curricula packages, which currently do not have evidence of effects on child outcomes.