Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children
Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children

The Boston Public Schools pre-k program is helping young children make substantial educational gains by blending crucial program ingredients.  A recent study focuses on two of these: a strong preschool curriculum and extensive teacher coaching.

The study comes from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and was published in March on the website of the journal Child Development.

Boston’s preschool efforts started small. In 1998, the city had three early education centers. Today, the Boston Public School system serves 2,300 young children in 85% of its elementary schools, early learning centers and K-8 schools. Like most communities, Boston has a mixed delivery system of early education that also includes community-based centers and family child care homes, but these settings are not included in this study.

The Harvard study looked at learning outcomes for just over 2,000 BPS pre-k students, a racially and economically diverse group of children, who speak more than a dozen languages (including English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Haitian and Cape Verdean Creole), and were enrolled in the 2008-2009 academic year.

The results: “Participation in the prekindergarten program led to statistically significant improvements in mathematics, literacy and language skills,” the study notes. There was also a smaller positive impact on children’s executive function skills – which includes working memory, inhibitory control and attention shifting.

In more exuberant terms, Mayor Thomas Menino summed up the findings in a statement, saying, “This research confirms that Boston leads the way nationally. We have always known our pre-kindergarten teachers are the very best at what they do, and we are proud that this Harvard study backs them up.”

The report is great news for children and families in Boston. It marks the city’s success in educating young children, and it shows that Boston is making progress on its commitment to closing the achievement gap.

The study’s researchers note that a key ingredient in Boston’s program is high-quality educators.  “All BPS prekindergarten teachers are subject to the same educational requirements and pay scale as K-12 teachers. All prekindergarten teachers must have at least a BA and must obtain a masters degree within 5 years. Placing BPS within the national context, in 2010, 27 of 40 states required a BA for teachers in state-funded prekindergarten programs.”

The study also points to the importance of coaching, which “can produce gains in preschool classroom quality, teacher instructional practices and children’s cognitive and behavioral development.” The coaches who worked with the preschool teachers all had previous coaching experience as well as an average of 8.8 years of teaching in early childhood classes.

The other critical ingredient highlighted by the study is BPS’ high-quality curriculum. The preschool program’s research-based language and literacy curriculum emphasized social skills. And the math curriculum focused on number and simple arithmetic skills, geometry, measurement and spatial sense. Children also had the chance to ask their own math questions and explain their mathematical reasoning verbally – creating a wide array of language-rich opportunities.

Some research suggests that preschool yields more benefits for children from low-income families than those from middle and upper class homes, but in this case the study found “more affluent and white children also benefited from the BPS prekindergarten program.”

The Harvard study does note that Hispanic children tended to benefit more from preschool in several areas, including vocabulary, reading and numeracy. This finding along with similar findings in national research studies, prompted the report’s authors to argue that, “Policy-level efforts to increase the enrollment of Hispanic children in prekindergarten programs may be particularly beneficial from both developmental and cost–benefit perspectives.”

This assessment of Boston’s pre-k effort comes at a pivotal time. As Time Magazine points out, “The Boston program could serve as a model for the type of preschool education that President Obama recently called for in the public school system.” Lessons learned from Boston Public School pre-k could inform the implementation of other early learning programs in Boston and across the country.