April 5, 2022

Creating More Promising Preschool Programs: How Can We Protect Against Fade Out of Skills Learned During Preschool?

By Grace Lee, Child Policy Research Certificate student ’23

As we move out of the pandemic, more and more attention has been turned toward the funding and support of social programs. Under the American Families Plan, President Biden has advocated for creating a high-quality, universal pre-K program. On March 15, 2022, the Center for Child and Family Policy welcomed Dr. Margaret R. Burchinal, a professor at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia, to speak about her work on early childhood education. Burchinal’s talk, “Creating More Promising Preschool Programs: Implications of Preschool Quality and Fade-Out/Catch-Up,” was given as a part of the Early Childhood Initiative Series.

Burchinal began her talk by discussing a study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program, whose controversial results sparked questions about the long-term efficacy of preschool programs. The study found that, while participants in the pre-K program saw initial increases in academic skills compared to non-attendees, participants performed comparatively worse in English, math, and science by the third grade. This phenomenon is known as the fade-out/catch-up effect: while participation in pre-K programs gives students a major academic boost prior to kindergarten entry, this boost disappears after the first few years of elementary school. Researchers found that this effect was especially strong with rote academic skills, where fade out of rote skills such as reading and math is greater than fade out of abstract skills such as language and executive function (EF) (e.g. planning, time management, self-control and organization skills). While some studies have found positive long-term results in terms of college graduation and professional achievement for pre-K attendees, studies collectively demonstrate a fade out of skills gained in preschool programs.

In the next part of her lecture, Burchinal discussed three studies addressing the causes of fade out/catch up, correlations between the proportion of pre-K attendees and classroom quality, and best practices that can promote outcomes with less fade out/catch up.

Why does the fade-out/catch-up effect occur?

To address this question, Burchinal discussed the UNC ELN Project, a study of a targeted pre-K program for low-income children in North Carolina. These students were assessed on academic achievement and language, EF skills, and social and self-regulation skills. Classroom quality was also assessed using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which assesses the quality of interactions between teacher and student. In the beginning of the kindergarten year, pre-K attendees scored substantially better on reading and math measures, but these gains faded by spring. Language and EF gains, however, were sustained. These results support the Trifecta Hypothesis, which states that fade out occurs because “pre-K teaches foundational skills that are not the primary focus of subsequent instruction," since the study found catch up in rote academic skills but sustained differences in EF and language skills.

Does the proportion of pre-K attendees affect classroom quality and peer interactions?

In the second portion of the lecture, Burchinal explored the effect on classroom quality of having a greater proportion of pre-K attendees in a class. As a part of the UVA ELN study, researchers studied schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, and found that a greater proportion of pre-K attendees was correlated with higher CLASS scores and more literacy and abstract instruction, indicating higher overall classroom quality. In classrooms with greater pre-K proportions, students saw gains in language skills but declines in frustration tolerance. These results imply that while classroom quality increased, the effects on student skills were largely a result of peer effects and not classroom quality differences. Researchers concluded that schools with more pre-K attendees tend to be more diverse, have higher classroom quality, and improve language skills of students through peer effects.

How can pre-K programs promote outcomes with less fade out/catch up?

As a part of the UNC ELN Project, researchers assessed the quality of teacher-child interactions and the amount of time spent in large group activities. They found that 35 percent of student time was spent in large group activities while only 4 percent was spent in high-quality interactions with teachers. Burchinal stressed that “the biggest predictor of gains in abstract skills was the proportion of time spent in large group activities,” where greater time spent was correlated with negative gains in language skills and inhibitory control. Researchers found that children who participated in quality interchanges with teachers showed greater gains in language. In terms of academic skills, the study found that gains in decoding skills were positively correlated with the amount of direct instruction received, and gains in math skills were correlated with less large group instruction.

         Grace Lee

Collectively, these findings show that among pre-K attendees, there is more fade out of rote skills than abstract skills, and these gains and fade-outs are correlated with CLASS scores, quality of language exchanges between teacher and student, and large group activities. In terms of best practices, Burchinal concluded that “teaching rote literacy and math skills in pre-K is inefficient and potentially harmful” and that teachers in pre-K should use this time to promote abstract skills instead. Classrooms should emphasize rich teacher-child interactions, limit large group activities, and promote positive, not punitive behavior management. While the U.S. has a long way to go before achieving high-quality, universal pre-K, these studies and future work can inform evidence-based practices that will help children grow and flourish both inside and outside the classroom.

Grace Lee is a junior majoring in Neuroscience (B.S.) with a certificate in Child Policy Research. She aspires to be a physician-researcher working at the intersection of medicine, policy, and research regarding the social determinants of health, with a focus on child and adolescent welfare.