July 19, 2010

Researchers rate effectiveness of early childhood ed programs

Early childhood education programs can have an important impact on increasing the school readiness of young children, but some programs have stronger evidence of effectiveness than others, according to a comprehensive research review by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research and Reform in Education.

The purpose of the review was to examine the research on various early childhood education programs and identify those programs that are most likely to make a difference in children’s achievement. The scope of the review includes all types of programs that child care center directors, Head Start directors and principals might consider adopting to prepare their children for success in elementary school and beyond.

“In recent years, many early childhood education programs have been developed and evaluated for evidence of effectiveness,” said Bette Chambers, a professor at Johns Hopkins and the lead researcher for the review. “Our goal was to synthesize the findings from these evaluations so educators and policymakers can know which programs are ready to be implemented at scale.”

To begin the review process, Chambers and her research team conducted an exhaustive search to locate all studies that have compared alternative approaches to early childhood education from 1960 to the present. A total of 40 studies evaluating 28 different programs met the team’s research standards and were included in the review.

After a comprehensive analysis of each study’s findings, the research team rated the early childhood education programs on a scale ranging from insufficient evidence of effectiveness to strong evidence of effectiveness. Of the 28 programs included in the review, 11 received high ratings, with six programs showing strong evidence of effectiveness and five showing moderate evidence of effectiveness. The remaining programs received either a limited or insufficient evidence of effectiveness rating.

Consistent with the common-sense expectation that children learn what they are taught, the programs that focused on mathematics instruction were generally found to improve mathematics achievement, and the programs that focused on literacy and phonological awareness generally increased those skills. These findings could simply indicate that teaching preschool children skills ordinarily emphasized in kindergarten or later produces immediate effects on those skills.

However, several programs showed positive effects continuing to the end of kindergarten and beyond, suggesting that the preschool experience has impacts not limited to early exposure of academic content. In addition, longitudinal studies have found that compared to no preschool attendance, early childhood education programs can have positive long-term impacts.

“Ideally, more longitudinal studies that compare different preschool programs will be conducted to determine the long-term impacts of current programs,” Chambers said. “In the meantime, our review identified several promising approaches that could be used today to help children begin elementary school ready to succeed.”

The full research review, including program ratings, is available on Johns Hopkins University’s Best Evidence Encyclopedia website at www.bestevidence.org/early_childhood.htm.