Pa.’s free pre-K program provides a meaningful math and language boost, says new study

Fresh crayons and markers await preschool students.

Fresh crayons and markers await preschool students. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A new evaluation of Pennsylvania’s state-funded pre-K program finds it consistently gives kids a meaningful boost in some core skills — but has seemingly no effect on others.

Launched in 2007, the state-backed Pre-K Counts initiative provides free pre-Kindergarten instruction to Pennsylvania’s low-income families.

To evaluate the program, researchers with the University of North Carolina tracked the progress of nearly 600 kindergarteners from across the state during the 2018-19 school year. About two-thirds of those kids had spent at least a year in a Pre-K Counts program, while the rest had received no formal early childhood education.

A key finding is that the kids who had been in pre-K had a serious head start on vocabulary and math skills.

“We saw differences that were about four to five months of learning,” said principal investigator Ellen S. Peisner-Feinberg. “This was something that makes a difference for these children.”

Those results were consistent across the state, in urban and rural areas alike. And they were evident in the second half of the year, many months after the children had begun kindergarten.

However, the evaluation kids found kids who attended Pre-K Counts saw no gain in literacy, executive function, or social skills.

“I think that speaks to perhaps some areas for the Pre-K Counts program to look at in terms of professional development,” Peisner-Feinberg said, adding that elementary schools should also consider retooling kindergarten curriculums to better build on the pre-K experience.

The report also found no difference in progress between kids who attended Pre-K Counts for two years, and those who attended for just one year.

That’s likely because most Pre-K Count programs provide the same experience regardless of how long the child has been attending: data from a survey of program administrators included as part of the evaluation showed there was little difference in curriculum or instruction based on age group.

“It’s important to ensure that the curriculum children receive in the second year builds on advancing the skills and knowledge they gained in the first,” Peisner-Feinberg said.

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Disclosure: This study was funded by the William Penn Foundation, which also helps support WHYY’s education coverage. 

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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