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Geographic Placement of Pre-K Matters for Access and Outcomes

Amanda Stein, Start Early director of research and evaluation, discusses findings from our latest research that finds geographic placement of full-day pre-K matters not only for more equitable pre-K access, but also for academic outcomes in early elementary school.

Amanda Stein June 15, 2021
  • Equity
  • Policy and Systems
  • Research
  • Blog

In this blog, Amanda Stein, director of research and evaluation, discusses new research with Start Early, NORC at the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. Read the full report.

Current Opportunities

Coming off the heels of the pandemic, the massive influx of federal spending on early childhood care and education (ECCE) offers systems, district and program leaders an opportunity to intentionally design and implement equity-focused policies and practices that ensure families and children — especially young children living in marginalized, under-served or otherwise vulnerable communities — have access and are engaged in high quality early learning experiences.

Young children, their families, and our broader society are unable to reap the benefits of quality ECCE programs if children and families are not able to access them. Existing research evidence shows that differential access is an important contributing factor to inequities in enrollment. There is an enormous body of work about the long-term benefits associated with quality care and education in a child’s earliest years, including the recent research evidence coming out of Boston, that makes disparities in access to programming particularly concerning.

Prior Research Findings

Our previous work in Chicago found that after major policy changes focused on reallocating pre-K classrooms to specific schools and neighborhoods throughout the city and increasing the overall number of full-day, pre-K classrooms — both access and enrollment improved for high-priority student groups (students of color, students speaking a language other than English and students living in neighborhoods with lower income and higher unemployment). Furthermore, we found a persistent link between access to and enrollment in full-day, school-based pre-K. In other words, living closer to a school with full-day pre-K increased a child’s likelihood of enrolling, especially for high-priority student groups.  Learn more about our earlier research findings.

Newest Research Findings: Evidence of Improved Student Outcomes Linked to Policies Focused on Equity in Preschool Access
Recent research from Start Early with NORC at the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research examines if and how these pre-K policy changes intended to increase access and enrollment to full-day pre-K are related to later student outcomes. We found that these equity-centered policies at the pre-K level in Chicago created a pathway to higher test scores and grades in second grade. Specifically, these policy shifts were related to higher kindergarten entry skills and ultimately better academic outcomes in second grade, particularly for high-priority students. Reading test scores in second grade also increased among Black students and students in the lowest income group. Importantly, the pathway from full-day pre-K to better second grade outcomes proved especially strong among Black students, students in the lowest-income group, and students living in mostly-Black neighborhoods.

Policy Implications and Directions for Future Research
Overall, the study provides evidence that the geographic placement of school-based, full-day pre-K classrooms is an important mechanism for advancing equity in pre-K access and enrollment and for improved academic achievement in early elementary school, especially for high-priority student groups. In particular the pathway from full-day pre-K to better second grade outcomes proved especially strong among Black students, students in the lowest-income group, and students living in mostly-Black neighborhoods.

Not unexpectedly, the long-term increases in outcomes following Chicago’s access-focused pre-K policy changes account for a relatively small portion of the overall disparities in academic outcomes between student groups. In other words, point-in-time policy changes at the pre-K grade level alone cannot fully address the effects of long-standing systemic inequities within and beyond the educational system. We must work toward building a comprehensive, equity-centered ECCE system that acknowledges the infrastructural role that early care and learning play in the overall economy.

Nonetheless, this research evidence demonstrates that access to full-day pre-K is an important policy strategy that ECCE systems and district leaders can leverage to advance more equitable access and improve academic outcomes in later years. Current ECCE systems and policy conditions are ripe with opportunity for cities and districts to expand full-day pre-K close to where historically underserved students live. It is also possible that the pandemic has led to changes in families’ needs and priorities for care and learning experiences for their children. Therefore, systems and district leaders should develop strategies to actively engage families about their needs, worries, and considerations in addition to location of full-day pre-k and to support families’ awareness and reduce barriers to enrollment in those options. And researchers should continue to study the effectiveness of those efforts. Other key policies beyond access to pre-K must be considered, including policies that support improved classroom quality and family engagement within pre-K settings, support preschool-to-3rd grade instructional alignment, and reduction of poverty and violence as multiple approaches that move us to a time and space where sociodemographic characteristics are not determinants of student outcomes.

Continue the Conversation
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About the Author

Amanda Stein

Amanda Stein

Managing Director, Research & Evaluation

Amanda Stein, Ph.D conducts research focused on the short and long-term outcomes of children and families participating in early education settings and advances high-quality practices and organizational conditions through the professional development of leaders and practitioners.

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