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

Panel Paper: Comparing the Impact of Attending a School-Based Preschool on Young Children's Pre-Academic Skills, Social Behavior, and Approaches to Learning

Saturday, November 14, 2015 : 1:45 PM
Brickell Center (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Todd Grindal and Michael Lopez, Abt Associates
Prior research has demonstrated that high quality early childhood care and education are associated with multiple positive impacts on the development of young children (Loeb, Fuller, Kagan, & Carrol, 2004).  In recognition of the value of early childhood initiatives, many states and localities have made substantial investments in various early care and education (ECE) programs.  Importantly, research suggests that the quality of ECE settings may be a critical mediator of the link between early care and children’s outcomes, particularly for at-risk children (NICHD ECCRN, 2000, 2003; Burchinal et al., 2003; Loeb, Fuller, Kagan, & Carrol, 2004).

President Obama has proposed an expansion of publicly funded preschool for eligible four-year-old children. Although the President specified that these programs must be "high quality" he left decisions regarding how to structure these programs to the states. Program setting, whether the preschool program is provided in a school-based or non-school based setting, represents a much debated but under-examined structural characteristic that may be related to preschool program quality and thereby affect children’s development (Sheridan et al., 2009).  Currently, U.S children receive publicly financed preschool services in a wide range of school-based and non-school-based settings. Although scholars and educators have long debated which of these settings provides the more appropriate environment to promote the development of young children, the substantive and methodological limitations of prior empirical work on this question offer little evidence to inform policy decisions.

In this study, we draw upon data from Phase Two of the Universal Preschool Child Outcomes Study, to investigate whether fall to spring changes on measures of pre-academic skills, social behavior, and approaches to learning differ for 665 four-year-old children in 39 school-based preschool programs versus 889 children in 59 non-school-based programs. Sampled school-based and non-school-based programs were operated by a range of entities, including private not-for-profit, private for-profit, as well as public sector organizations. Head Start grantees operated both sampled school-based and non-school-based programs, with Head Start representing 15 (25%) of sampled non-school-based programs and 5 (13%) of sampled school-based programs.

We use multi-level random intercepts regression analyses accounting for selection into program type using propensity score weighting methods and find that, on average, sampled children who attended school-based preschool programs experienced significantly greater gains (approximately one-fifth to one-fourth of a standard deviation greater gains) between fall and spring on indicators of pre-academic skills, compared to their peers who attended non-school-based preschool programs. We do not observe any differences between children in school-based and non-school based programs on measures of social behavior or approaches to learning.  These findings are robust to a number of sensitivity analyses.   The positive effects on pre-academic skills observed in this paper, though small- to moderately-sized, are similar in magnitude to the effects of early childhood education observed in a recent meta-analysis (Duncan & Magnuson, 2013).

This work has practical implications for early childhood practitioners and suggests that policy makers interested in expanding the availability of preschool programs should strongly consider doing so via school-based programs.

Full Paper: