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The pre-K environment may help support long-term success in math, according to a new study of Georgia’s pre-K program. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

One of the only recent studies following graduates of public pre-K programs into middle school delivered some positive news for those seeking to expand such opportunities: Students in Georgia who attended the state’s prekindergarten program at age four were up to twice as likely to meet academic standards on the state’s standardized math test in grades 4-7.

“We weren’t surprised,” said Stacey Neuharth-Pritchett, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Georgia, and one of the authors of the study, which encompassed 458 children. “It’s not about intellect or capacity, it’s just about access. These little scholars [got] access to a really enriched vocabulary environment and early exposure to math skills.”

The study looked at children who attended pre-K in Georgia during the 1999-00 school year and analyzed their performance on state tests compared to peers who did not attend pre-K. It found that in fourth through seventh grade, graduates of the Georgia pre-k program were one and half to two times more likely to meet the state’s academic standards on math tests than their peers who did not attend public pre-K. The program at that time was less academically ambitious but more comprehensive, said Neuharth-Pritchett. Families had access to supports, including wraparound services, that are no longer funded by the state. Throughout its history, the program has maintained high quality standards and during the year studied, a majority of teachers had master’s degrees. 

Georgia launched a pilot of what became the country’s first state-funded universal pre-K program in 1992, funded by revenue from the state lottery. By 2019, 60 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds were served by the program, which met 8 out of 10 quality benchmarks set by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). The state spent about $4,500 per enrolled child in 2019. The program operates in partnership with public schools, private child care centers and other organizations. Other research has found that in kindergarten and first grade, graduates of the state-funded program have made significant academic gains.

Neuharth-Pritchett said the positive impact on graduates’ math skills is likely due to the general environment of high-quality classrooms, which can launch kids into successful school careers. “The really wonderful thing about pre-K is there are so many opportunities to include language of mathematical concepts,” she said. “All these things are done in a very developmentally appropriate way… it’s the type of language that would prepare them to be able to hear similar language when they move to kindergarten, so they can be successful in making that transition.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about Georgia Pre-K was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

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