Academic advantages of going to preschool don’t last long, study finds

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Researchers say most kids catch up during kindergarten

A new study conducted by researchers from the American Psychological Association explored the academic advantages associated with attending preschool versus going straight to kindergarten. According to their findings, preschool is instrumental in developing kids’ skills in a variety of areas, but children who go straight to kindergarten are still able to catch up by the end of their first year.  

“One interesting part of our findings was that children’s classroom experiences in kindergarten had little to do with whether the benefits of pre-K persist over time,” said researcher Arya Ansari. 

“Instead, what our findings appear to suggest is that even though children’s skills are susceptible to improvement as a result of pre-K, their longer-term outcomes are likely to be affected by factors that are outside the scope of early schooling. We need to view pre-K as one of many investments we make to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to succeed in life.” 

Understanding educational progress

The researchers had over 2,500 kindergarteners involved in the study; over half of the group attended pre-K while the remaining children went straight to kindergarten. For the entirety of the kindergarten school year, the researchers evaluated the students on three primary outcomes: social-emotional skills, literacy and math, and executive functioning, which includes things like memory and self-control. 

The study revealed that pre-K graduates outperformed those who didn’t attend pre-K in the early parts of the kindergarten school year when it came to both academic and executive functioning outcomes. However, by the end of the year, the researchers found that students who hadn’t attended pre-K were able to close that gap. 

In looking at specific academic areas, the researchers noted that pre-K graduates started out the year 80 percent stronger in literacy and 45 percent stronger in general knowledge; however, by the end of the year, those differences were eliminated. 

“We found that pre-K graduates entered Kindergarten demonstrating stronger academic skills than those who did not attend preschool,” Ansari said. “The same was true for executive functioning, but there was no aggregate difference in kindergarten teachers’ reports of their socio-emotional skills. However, we also found that the differences between attenders and nonattenders diminished between the fall and spring of kindergarten, primarily because nonattenders who entered school for the first time in kindergarten made larger learning gains as compared to their classmates with pre-K experiences.” 

Moving forward, the researchers hope that more work can be done on the effects of attending preschool, as understanding these differences in academic performance can be beneficial to both parents and educators. 

“Ensuring that young children enter kindergarten ready to learn has been of great research and policy interest,” said Ansari. “By all accounts, pre-K programs have helped achieve this goal. However, there have been lingering questions as to whether contemporary and scaled-up pre-K programs provide children with enduring benefits as they progress throughout their educational careers.” 

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