Expanding universal pre-K is high on the list of many education advocates, despite the fact that evidence of its impact is based on “thin empirical gruel.” If we’re going to forge ahead anyway, a new study in the Economics of Education Review addresses a key question: What type of curriculum works best in these settings?

Analysts use experimental data to determine which preschool curricula are most effective in pre-K classrooms, which spanned public preschools, private childcare, and Head Start programs primarily serving low-income families. The study pooled data from the Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Initiative Study, which began in 2003 and required evaluations of fourteen early-childhood-education curricula in preschool centers. Each of those grantees was responsible for collecting various data for independent evaluations, but this is the first time that those data have been pooled across all of the single evaluations, with a sample comprising roughly 2,000 children.

Each grantee randomly assigned whole schools or classrooms within schools to either treatment or control curricula. There were three broad types of curricula to which they assigned. First is the whole-child curricula, defined as what most Head Start centers use, which is based on child-centered active learning for which teachers lead small and large group activities focused on multiple interest areas (such as blocks, dramatic play, toys, games, art, music, and so on). This is a “business as usual” approach, and is one of the control conditions. The second potential assignment is locally-developed curricula that are precisely that; in other words, we don’t know exactly what those materials entail, but they nonetheless comprise the second “business as usual” approach and second control condition. Finally, there are the content-specific curricula in math and English language arts that target specific academic skills; this is the treatment condition.

Researchers conducted various analyses such that different combinations of treatment and control curricula were compared. They examined both academic measures and classroom observation data that documented the interactions between teachers and students and the other “process” measures of classroom culture.

The key finding was that the whole-child curricula did much better on the process measures for classroom culture—virtually every one of them—than did the other curricula. Yet content-specific curricula did much better on the academic readiness measures—specifically, the Woodcock Johnson and Peabody Picture Test—than did whole-child or local curricula. For instance, at the end of preschool, children randomly assigned to the math-content curriculum had math scores that were 0.35 standard deviations higher, and academic composite scores that were 0.25 standard deviations higher, compared to children receiving the “Creative Curriculum,” which was the “whole-child” curriculum.

The analysts find no link between measures of classroom quality and curricular impacts, so they warn against relying too heavily on “process outcomes” to measure school readiness for young learners. They also recommend that whole-child curricula not be mandated—which is apparently what the Head Start centers do—without much more research. And they end with this stern admonition: “In the absence of such evidence, we conclude that policy effects should focus more attention on assessing and implementing developmentally-appropriate, proven, skills-focused curricula and move away from the comparatively ineffective whole-child approach.” Sounds like a step forward, but we at Fordham would add one more suggestion: Make sure that the so-called skills-focused curricula are anchored in rich and engaging content.

SOURCE: Jade M. Jenkins et al., “Boosting School Readiness: Should Preschool Teachers Target Skills or the Whole Child?” Economics of Education Review (May 2018).

Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she supervises the Institute’s studies and research staff.  She has published in the areas of educational accountability, principal leadership, teacher quality, and academic standards, among others. Prior to joining Fordham, she served as senior study director at Westat. In that role, she provided evaluation services…

View Full Bio