How much can high-quality Universal Pre-K reduce achievement gaps?

March 31, 2016

In a report published by the Center for American Progress, NIEER researchers find that providing high-quality prekindergarten to all children nationally would dramatically reduce inequality in academic preparedness at kindergarten entry. Here we provide highlights from that report.

Many ethnic/racial minority children and children from low-income families enter kindergarten without all the skills they need to succeed in school. Compared to their white and higher-income peers, these children begin kindergarten months behind in reading (its precursors) and math. (See Figure 1.) The larger problem is that these measures of children’s academic abilities at kindergarten entry are strong predictors of later school success—these “achievement” gaps begin early and are only modestly closed after kindergarten entry. They remain large as children progress through school, and are difficult to close.


Early childhood education (ECE) programs show promise in reducing achievement gaps, particularly at kindergarten entry. Research suggests that attending high-quality ECE can enhance children’s development, reduce achievement gaps, and have longer-term benefits for children’s development. This research includes meta-analyses of ECE programs; evaluations of landmark ECE programs including the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers; and evaluations of larger scale publicly funded programs including Head Start (a federal program for at-risk children) and universally available preschool programs in Boston, New Jersey’s Abbott school districts, and Oklahoma.

Despite the known benefits of high-quality ECE, access to such programs remains remarkably low and highly unequal. Although rates of preschool attendance have increased in the last several decades, access varies widely by children’s backgrounds, with African American, Hispanic, and low-income children having lower rates of attendance. We estimated that rates of enrollment in high-quality ECE ranged from under 15 percent of black children to almost 30 percent of non-low-income children. (See Figure 2). And, importantly, the quality of the vast majority of ECE programs is low, particularly for low-income children and children of color. Yet research suggests that high-quality ECE produces the largest positive effects on children’s development. Further benefits may result when children have access to high quality ECE for a full-day, five days per week. Yet access to full-day, high-quality ECE is even more limited.


Despite a general consensus that high-quality ECE can improve children’s learning and reduce kindergarten entry gaps, policy makers and researchers have disagreed about the relative advantages and disadvantages of targeted and universal ECE programs. On one hand, a means-tested targeted program would (in theory) benefit only those children who are at-risk to begin kindergarten without the necessary school readiness skills, thereby narrowing the gap. On the other hand, a universal program would benefit all children and would improve the school readiness of all children, without actually narrowing the gap. However, there is evidence that universal programs do not affect all children similarly, but have larger effects on ethnic/racial minority children and children from low-income families, compared to white and more affluent children. Therefore, a universal program that increased enrollment of children from low-income and ethnic/racial minority families could have powerful effects in reducing the kindergarten entry achievement gaps.

As we describe below, we simulated the effects of nationally scaled universal publicly funded high-quality prekindergarten (UPK) on math and reading achievement gaps at kindergarten entry. Our results suggest that the achievement gaps could be reduced between 27% and 106%, or between 3 and 12 months of learning. We found that a high-quality UPK program could completely close the Black-White and Hispanic-White kindergarten entry gaps in reading. Other gaps prove to be more difficult to close completely. The Black-White gap in math could be reduced by 45% and the Hispanic-White gap in math by 78%. The income-related achievement gaps may be the most challenging to erase. Our results suggest that a high-quality UPK program could reduce the income-related achievement gap in reading by 41% and math by 27%. (See Figure 3.)


In order to estimate the extent to which high-quality UPK could reduce achievement gaps at kindergarten entry if every child attended a high quality program we used multiple sources of data. (See the CAP report for more information on our methods.) For measures of the impact we relied on the results from evaluations of Oklahoma’s Four-Year-Old Program in Tulsa and Boston Public Schools’ Public Prekindergarten Programs. We used the results of these two evaluations in our simulation for several reasons.

  • Both programs are considered high quality and universal.
  • The evaluations used rigorous methods.
  • Impacts were estimated for subgroups by income and ethnicity.
  • They span broad differences in populations and contexts across the country.

In conclusion, although challenging, implementing a high-quality UPK program has the potential to substantially reduce racial/ethnic and income based achievement gaps at kindergarten entry. A national policy to provide high-quality UPK could dramatically reduce ethnic/racial disparities in academic readiness at kindergarten entry. These gaps might even become negligible in both reading and math. Reductions in the gaps between children in low-income families and their more economically advantaged peers would be somewhat smaller but still meaningful. In implementing a national UPK program, it will be important to ensure that all children have access to truly high quality programs.

–Allison Friedman-Krauss, NIEER Assistant Research Professor

What Do Parents Need To Know About High Quality Preschool?

March 23, 2016


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Parents looking for good early care and education face a formidable challenge.  Further below we provide some helpful resources, but ultimately parents have to spend time learning about any program they are considering– asking questions, observing, and thinking about whether it is the right fit for your individual child. Below are 10 BASIC QUESTIONS that parents can ask and suggestions from NIEER faculty about the answers parents should look for.

1. Can I make an appointment to visit your program and spend time in a classroom?

Almost always the answer is yes; if they don’t accommodate visits at all, then cross them off your list.

What to look for: safe spaces where children are comfortable and engaged in interesting activities, not long periods of whole group “instruction” or classrooms where children are wandering aimlessly. Children should seem happy, not distressed, bored or crying.  The adults should be caring, sensitive (not harsh), responsive to children’s needs and requests, and involved in what the children are doing. There should be time and space for active outdoor play, indoor play and quiet time. Children’s cultures and home languages are represented in the classrooms.  

2. Is there a curriculum and how well do teachers implement it?

What to look for: a well-defined curriculum model[1]1 that includes physical well-being and motor development, social/emotional development, developing a love of learning, and rich experiences with play- and print-based language, math, and science.

3. What are the qualifications of the teachers?

What to look for: A quality preschool has teachers who are well-qualified as well as caring. Four-year college degrees with specialized training in early childhood education and child development can help prepare teachers with what they need to be successful. Your child should be assigned a teacher who is always responsible for your child. Teachers should have regular professional development as well as feedback from a supervisor.

4. Are your teachers paid comparably to similar professionals elsewhere?

What to look for: Ask whether the programs pays salaries comparable to those of private or public schools for Kindergarten or First grade and offer benefits like sick leave and health insurance.  Inadequate pay leads to high turnover, stressed teachers who live in near poverty, and inability to hire the best teachers in the first place.

5. What is the turnover rate for your teachers and assistant teachers?

What to look for: low turnover rates, teachers and assistants who have been there for years.

6. What are the qualifications of the assistant teachers?

What to look for: some required training, the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential or college course work in a prekindergarten area are good indicators.

7. How large are the classes and what are the staff-child ratios?

What to look for: Classes no larger than 20 and preferably smaller (15-18) with at least two staff, especially if your child is more comfortable and will receive more personal attention in a smaller class.

8. Are children assessed for learning difficulties and other problems (hearing, vision), do teachers know how to work with children who have special problems and are parents involved in the program?

What to look for: formal and informal health, sensory, and cognitive screenings, access to consultants on special learning needs, teachers who keep ongoing records on child progress and develop individual plans for each child, opportunities for parent conferences and family involvement.

9. Does the program provide healthy meals and/or snacks?

What to look for: programs that show a concern about children’s nutrition and developing healthy eating habits, and when they provide food, that they provide nutritious food.

10. Does routine monitoring and evaluation of program quality take place?

What to look for: A monitoring system is in place to ensure the quality in every classroom. The program continuously ensures program quality through updating accreditation, conducting staff evaluations, and other program quality assessments.


More information relating to these tips is available in Preschool Matters and NAEYC.

Parents looking for a detailed guide can buy an entire book on “How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child: The Ultimate Guide to Finding, Getting Into, and Preparing for Nursery” by Jenifer Wana, or the upcoming book ”Prek Home Companion” by Kaufman, Kaufman, and Nelson. 

For parents interested in advocacy, read about the widespread agreement among researchers on the value of investing in quality early childhood education programs.  One advocacy group of, and for, parents is Moms Rising.

In addition, NIEER has concise resources on specific topics you may find of interest including: dual language childrenhealth and early childhoodbrain development, and math and science in preschool.

Write us back and let us know if you find these tips useful, to forward advice you would like to share with other parents, write about the successes or difficulties you encounter in finding a great preschool for your children, and let us know what else you think we might do to be helpful other parents like yourself.

1 This means a curriculum that has been proven to be strong and developmentally appropriate, and that is aligned with a State’s early learning standards, which can be found at each state’s Department of Education website.

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