UCI News

Skills-focused preschool programs better at boosting school readiness

Widely used ‘whole-child’ curricula do not yield superior benefits, UCI-led study finds

September 11, 2018
Skills-focused preschool programs better at boosting school readiness
“A skill-specific curricular approach that is developmentally sound and fun for preschoolers improves school readiness more than whole-child curricula and … there were no detrimental impacts on children’s nonacademic social and behavioral outcomes,” says the study’s lead author, Jade Jenkins, UCI assistant professor of education. UCI School of Education

Irvine, Calif., Sept. 11, 2018 — The nation’s most commonly used preschool educational curricula – “whole-child” – do not appear to be any more effective at improving children’s academic, social or behavioral outcomes than instructional materials developed by teachers and districts themselves, according to a new study led by the University of California, Irvine.

School readiness – a child’s abilities to understand the sounds that letters make, count objects, pay attention, develop interpersonal relationships and get along with others – is one of the most important goals of publicly funded preschool initiatives such as Head Start. Preschool policies, set at state and federal levels, mandate that Head Start and many other public programs in the U.S. use curricula based on the whole-child philosophy. Rather than explicitly targeting developmental domains such as early math skills, whole-child approaches seek to promote learning by encouraging children to interact independently with the equipment, materials and other children in the classroom environment.

“Early childhood education projects such as Head Start were launched, in part, to help close the huge achievement gaps in reading, math and socioemotional proficiencies between high- and low-income children when they enter kindergarten,” said Jade Jenkins, lead author of the study and UCI assistant professor of education. “On average, whole-child curricula cost $2,000 per classroom, but there appears to be very little benefit from these expenses. In contrast, we found that a skill-specific curricular approach that is developmentally sound and fun for preschoolers improves school readiness more than whole-child curricula and that there were no detrimental impacts on children’s nonacademic social and behavioral outcomes.”

The whole-child model does not include explicit lesson instruction but promotes learning through classroom “process quality.” Cognitive and noncognitive development is supported by strategically arranging the environment and facilitating children’s engagement with prescribed toys and materials as well as with the teacher and classmates.

“Historically, child development research suggests that classroom process quality components are associated with learning, but rigorous investigation hasn’t yet established that,” Jenkins said. “We assessed the content and style of instruction using data from a randomized control trial and found that while the widely used whole-child curricula increased classroom process quality more than locally developed curricula and content-specific curricula, they failed to improve children’s school readiness more than these other approaches.”

The study appears online in the journal Economics of Education Review. Researchers analyzed data from the 2008 Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Initiative report – funded by the Institute of Education Sciences – which began in 2003 and included 14 curricula at 18 locations and 2,911 children.

Co-authors are Greg Duncan, UCI Distinguished Professor of education; Anamarie Auger of the Rand Corp.; Marianne Bitler of UC Davis; and Thurston Domina and Margaret Burchinal of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The work was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences under grant number R305B120013 and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development under award number P01-HD065704.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

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