Panel Paper: Estimating the Impact of Preschool Setting Type on Kindergarten School Readiness Skills for Low-Income Children with Special Needs

Saturday, November 10, 2018
Jefferson - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Owen N. Schochet, Anna Johnson and Deborah Phillips, Georgetown University

In 2016, approximately 550,000 preschool-aged children with special needs received their preschool education in either a Head Start or state-funded public pre-kindergarten (pre-k) classroom. While Head Start and public pre-k represent two of the primary publicly-funded preschool settings that serve children with special needs, community-based child care centers that accept children whose care is funded through federal child care subsidies also serve this population; 30 states give priority to subsidy recipients with special needs children. In recognition of the increasing number of preschool-aged children with identified special needs and the rising enrollments of special needs children in inclusive preschool programs, in 2015 the federal Departments of Education and Health and Human Services issued a joint policy statement calling for expanded access to inclusive public preschool for children with special needs.

Yet, the impact of expanded participation in these public preschool programs for children with special needs is just starting to be investigated. Emerging evidence focused on Head Start and single-site public pre-k programs (e.g., in Tulsa, OK; in Boston, MA) suggests that children with special needs demonstrate equal or greater kindergarten readiness impacts of center-based preschool exposure than typically developing children (e.g., Phillips & Meloy, 2012; Bloom & Weiland, 2015; Weiland, 2016). However, until now, no research has used national data to investigate the impact of publicly-funded center-based preschool on the kindergarten school readiness outcomes of low-income children with special needs across the full range of publicly-funded settings that serve this group (e.g., subsidized community-based centers; Head Start; public pre-k). Given that, alongside low-income children, special needs children have been a major focus of public funding in early interventions and policies to promote school readiness at kindergarten entry, this is a troubling knowledge gap from a policy perspective.

To fill this gap in the literature, we draw data from the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Birth Cohort (ECLS-B); across multiple waves, the ECLS-B collected information on child special needs status, preschool type, household demographic and economic characteristics, and direct and teacher-reported assessments of child cognitive and social outcomes. To estimate effects of public preschool exposure on the kindergarten outcomes of children with special needs, we employ difference-in-differences regression models including robust, time varying covariates to reduce selection bias in impact estimates of preschool exposure on growth in children’s cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes at kindergarten entry. All analyses are conducted on a low-income sample of children with special needs (N » 5,300).

Preliminary results suggest that exposure to publicly-funded preschool (relative to parental care) boosts children’s language/literacy scores at kindergarten entry by .2 standard deviations and generates a .3 standard deviation gain in teacher-reported prosocial behaviors (relative to home-based care). Nonsignificant impacts were estimated on changes in math scores, teacher-reported externalizing behaviors, and teacher-reported approaches to learning. Future research will test the robustness of findings to alternative definitions of special needs status, disaggregate effects by public preschool type, and explore classroom-level variables that may explain differential growth in outcomes by preschool experience.