Assessing the Evaluations of Early Childhood Education Programs

Chapter 8 - Early Reading First
Introduction to the Original Evaluation (Excerpt)

Early Reading First began in 2001 as a grant program established as part of the No Child Left Behind Act to prepare preschool-aged children to enter formal schooling. Discretionary grants were given to preschools that largely serve low-income families to improve the age-appropriate language and reading skills of children to bolster the schools' already existing programs. ERF was based on prior research, which "shows that a high percentage of children from low-income families attend preschools that may successfully address other developmental domains but often fail to provide the language, cognitive, and early- reading instruction and activities necessary to develop skills to become successful readers."

John Burghardt and his colleagues at Mathematica Policy Research ("Mathematica team") conducted a U.S. Department of Education mandated evaluation of Early Reading First that was largely funded by the National Institute for Literacy. The team used a quasi-experimental regression discontinuity design to evaluate the impact of the program on professional development that teachers receive and children's oral language (expressive and receptive language and vocabulary), phonological awareness (rhyming, blending, segmenting), and print and letter knowledge (letter recognition).

The Mathematica team found the program to be successful in improving aspects of classroom environments that were major foci of the ERF program and improving children's print and letter knowledge. They found no impact on children's phonological awareness or oral language. ERF had no significant effects on social emotional development.

There are several concerns regarding the design of the study. The RDD included all sites, not just the sites surrounding the cutpoint. The sample size is small, which could contribute to misleading results. Finally, children in the funded sites differed from children in the unfunded sites on a variety of measures including race and ethnicity, having a language other than English spoken at home, and having foreign-born parents. If the children in the two groups differ, their assessment scores could confound the results of the evaluation and lead to problems with generalizability.

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