Preschool Program Quality is Key to Sustaining Gains Later

Last week, Tennessee released a less-than-glowing report of its state-funded pre-K program for children from low-income families. The multi-year study found that children started off school strong, but by kindergarten weren’t much different than their peers who didn’t attend the program. Nothing changed by third grade.


Other states are studying their own programs and getting much different and better results. Why? Because it’s not good enough just to offer preschool, it has to be high-quality preschool.


In December 2014, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) released a report on the state’s 30-year old Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). Researchers compared the test scores of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who had attended ECEAP to those of similar children who had not. Three- and 4-year-olds are eligible for the program based on a number of risk factors. ECEAP is one of the few state pre-k programs that have adopted a proven model that addresses the needs of the whole child – a high-quality classroom with individualized learning plans, attention to the health of the child, and full engagement with the family to ensure that the child is supported and gains are sustained.


Major findings from the WSIPP study:

  • “Children who attended ECEAP had significantly higher math and reading scores in third, fourth and fifth grades compared to children who did not attend the program. These results are as good or better than some of the country’s top full-day state programs and twice as good as the average state pre-k program.
  • Just based on these impressive test scores, WSIPP found a return on investment of $13,030 for each ECEAP participant. This does not fully incorporate two of the major economic benefits of early learning – high school graduation and crime prevention.


And ECEAP might be even better than the study shows.


Because the study looked primarily at third- through fifth-grade test scores, researchers could only look at ECEAP before 2009. Today, ECEAP looks even better than it did in 2008 with 33 percent more classroom hours, restrictions on caseload for family support workers, greater emphasis on research-based curriculum and assessment, and required participation in Early Achievers, the state’s quality rating and improvement system.


Over the next few years, ECEAP attendance is expected to more than double to serve the nearly 25,000 children who are eligible statewide.


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Other state studies (added 10.13.15)