New research from Tyler Watts, Assistant Professor in Developmental Psychology, explores the impact of pre-K on children in North Carolina and suggests that public investment in early childhood education can offer long term benefits. Working with his close colleagues, Jade Jenkins and Kenneth Dodge, Watts joined North Carolina researchers to extend existing analyses to answer the question, “Do the impacts of pre-K change based on environmental characteristics?”

Published in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Watts and his co-researchers examined outcomes from approximately one million students and found that pre-K had a positive effect on students, especially those who may experience below-standard education in the future.

Watts sat down with TC to discuss the implications of these findings and how it could shape educational policy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(Photo: TC Archives)

What is the significance of your findings for the field of early childhood education?

A lot of people in our area have been working under the assumption that pre-K effects are going to be enhanced when they're followed by high quality educational experiences. In the monograph, we contrast this theory with evidence that early childhood education programs are often observed to have compensatory benefits, meaning that the benefits are often largest for kids who are in more disadvantaged situations.

We argue that, in a way, these two theories are predicting opposite things. If we find that kids who are more systematically disadvantaged are benefiting more from preschool, there's no reason for us to think that those disadvantages end after they're finished with preschool, right?

What we found in the study was that oftentimes pre-K effects were not dependent on other environments, but when we did find that the pre-k effect was moderated, we tended to find that it was in the compensatory direction. 

Instead of finding that pre-K effects were enhanced when a child went into higher-achieving elementary schools, we found that they were diminished. This means that kids who were in lower quality elementary schools had bigger impacts from going to pre-K, and kids who were in higher quality elementary schools had smaller pre-K effects. And, to us, this is a really interesting idea. It's showing that pre-K could actually provide some protection against future [social and educational] environments that might not be very helpful.

What is your research focus and how did you get involved with this study?

A lot of the work I do is on early childhood, but more broadly, I'm interested in the question of “can educational programs have long lasting effects?” When I went into grad school, I was interested in whether policies directed at children and families could combat inequality. I think we expect that education can help people improve economic outcomes for their lives. My graduate school advisor is an economist who has been working on issues around child poverty for decades, and at the time, he was really convinced that early childhood education was a particularly promising lever for combating inequality. That's how I got into it.

How does your research interact in the current conversation around the impact of pre-K?

If we're being honest about the literature on pre-K, we have a mixed set of findings. There are evaluations like ours, where we observe a modest effect on achievement in fifth grade. There are other programs, like in Boston, where they have a well-designed study finding no effects on achievement in elementary school, but then they observe effects on outcomes like enrolling in college many years down the road. There is also very rigorous work in Tennessee where they have found initial positive effects on kids' academic skills, but by middle school, kids who went to pre-K were showing worse outcomes in behavior and achievement compared with the kids who did not go. Of course, that evidence is very alarming.

Over the last 20 years, there has been a substantial expansion of public funds for pre-K, but states have handled it in very different ways. Not every state has invested at the same level, and there are still a handful of states that are not investing.  

So how do we sort all this out? What we want to do next is study whether funding across the country for pre-K has led to impacts on child achievement and wellbeing. If we can get that right, maybe we can make some sense of broader patterns and figure out how best to implement these programs.

For a more in-depth look at the findings, the monograph is available here