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Report Demonstrates Continuing Value of Preschool for New Jersey's Poorest Kids

John Mooney | March 20, 2013

Seven-year study puts pre-K students as much as three-quarters of academic year ahead of classmates.

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One of the common questions raised about preschool is, “Do the benefits really last?”

According to a report to be released today, the answer is in the affirmative for New Jersey’s state-funded program. By the time they reached the fourth or fifth grade, kids who attended pre-K in the state’s poorest cities were on average three-quarters of an academic year ahead of their peers who didn’t.

The study -- from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers -- started tracking 1,000 preschool students in 15 of New Jersey’s poorest districts in 2005. These children were among the first beneficiaries of the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings that mandated preschool.

Seven years later, researchers found that these kids -- or at least the 700 they could still identify -- had made significant academic gains, following up on similar findings when they were in second grade.

They were also significantly less likely to either be held back a grade or routed to special education services, according to the study, the Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study (APPLES).

The preschool program ordered by the courts and now funded by the state is among the most rigorous in the nation. It specifies two years of full-day classes, certified teachers, and research-based curriculum. Class size is limited to 15.

“It is a big cost, but I think you can say the taxpayers are getting their money back,” said Steve Barnett, executive director of NIEER and one of the chief researchers, who will be presenting the report in Washington, D.C., today.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday said he was heartened by the results, and he hoped to spread the best practices to other districts. The state Department of Education provided the data for the report, although it did not pay for the research.

“We are energized by these findings and are grateful to the educators that work tirelessly for these results,” Cerf said in a statement. ”We are committed to continuing to share successful practices from these programs with educators across the state to help all children receive high-quality early learning opportunities.”

The state Supreme Court’s mandate for two years of quality preschool has long been held out as the single biggest success story of the Abbott rulings.

In 2008, then-Gov. Jon Corzine and the Legislature passed an expansion of the mandate to apply the same standards -- and funding -- to all districts serving low-income students.

That expansion has since been stalled by the state’s financial strains. But preschool in the Abbott districts has continued to grow and be the beneficiary of increased funding.

This year, close to 45,000 students are being served under the mandate.

Gov. Chris Christie has proposed an additional $14.4 million in state support for preschool in the Abbott districts and a handful of others next year, according to the administration. The would bring the total to $648 million, its largest funding yet.

The new report should further bolster the case for the program, with Barnett saying that the New Jersey results are better than practically anywhere else, including national studies that looked at the long-term benefit of preschool.

The tracking is modeled on a national longitudinal study completed in 2010 that found at least some “fadeout” of preschool benefits as children get older.

“If you look at Texas or Georgia, they are looking at small fractions of our effects by third grade or fourth grade,” Barnett said. “It kind of makes sense, as [New Jersey’s] program is more expensive and more extensive than anywhere else. Nobody else has class sizes of 15.”

And he said it should make the case for renewing its expansion efforts as well. “Will [the administration] say that as resources come back, we need to implement this? Because it is clearly an effective program,” Barnett said.

In addition, the researchers said they found nearly double the benefits of two years of preschool compared with one, even seven years later.

“The magnitude of the test-score gains from one year are equivalent to 10 percent to 20 percent of the achievement gap between minority and white students,” reads the report.

“The gains from two years are equivalent to 20 percent to 40 percent of the achievement gap,” the study said.

“Today’s findings continue to prove the long-term value of high-quality preschool,” said Cecilia Zalkind, the executive eirector of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “It provides further proof of why it must be available to all 3- and 4-year-olds, especially those in low-income families.”

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