Panel Paper: Sustaining Impacts of High-Quality PreK through Third Grade: Lessons from a Partnership with the Boston Public School District

Thursday, November 2, 2017
Soldier Field (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Meghan McCormick1, Christina Weiland2, JoAnn Hsueh1 and Jason Sachs3, (1)MDRC, (2)University of Michigan, (3)Boston Public Schools

A number of studies have found that the positive impacts of preschool programs on cognitive skills fade out as children progress through elementary school (Barnett, 1995; Ludwig & Phillips, 2008; Puma et al., 2012). Although there is some evidence from older studies that high-quality preschool can improve a number of longer-term life outcomes, such as high school graduation and employment (Masse & Barnett, 2002; Schweinhart, 2003), the magnitude and longevity of these effects have yet to be found for scaled-up programs. A clearer understanding of the causes of – and potential solutions to – fadeout can help guide policy and practice at a time of increased investment in preschool programs.

Based on its sizeable short-term effects on children’s language/literacy and math skills (Weiland & Yoshikawa, 2013), the Boston Public Schools (BPS) preschool program has been identified as one model that has the potential to sustain preschool impacts through third grade. In addition, BPS recently rolled out a new curriculum – called Focus – to align preschool to third grade so that children’s educational experiences effectively build on one another as they move through early schooling. Yet, there is no evidence to date on the long-term impacts of the BPS program. Moreover, the district has few tools of their own to measure implementation of preschool and Focus programming, and assess student outcomes. These limitations make it difficult for BPS to monitor the efficacy of early childhood education and engage in effective program improvement.

Accordingly, BPS has entered into a research-practice partnership with early childhood researchers and experts in quantitative methodology to explore strategies to understand the long-term impacts of their programming. The current paper will first provide information on how the research team worked with district staff to create reliable and valid measures of program fidelity, that provide accurate and real-time actionable information to instructional coaches working with early childhood teachers. Findings from data on this observational tool – collected using a tablet-enabled app – will be presented to describe the range of quality observed in BPS early childhood and elementary settings. Second, we will present on a series of apps that the research team and district co-constructed and are being used to assess formative and summative assessments of children’s early skills. The apps measure early numeracy and letter knowledge, in addition to outcomes that BPS is more explicitly focused on supporting – higher-order cognitive skills that capture problem solving, vocabulary knowledge, and critical thinking, and are most predictive of later academic skills (Paris, 2005; Snow & Matthews, 2016). Finally, we will present on findings to date about how these measures inform the long-term impacts of the BPS preschool program on student outcomes through third grade.

The current paper will provide insights into how policymakers can integrate high-quality data collection into existing district practices in a feasible and sustainable way. Findings will inform burgeoning efforts across the country to form research-practice partnerships that use better data for better decision-making across educational settings.