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Opportunities for Learning: Evaluating the Preschool Development Grant (PDG)

March 28, 2019
by Joanna Meyer

In 2014, the U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) jointly launched the Preschool Development Grant (PDG) program to increase access to high-quality preschool programs. The grant announcement made a strong case for this $250M investment, citing a variety of research on the association of high-quality early childhood education with short- and long-term outcomes for children. PDG grant recipients must meet requirements related to several indicators of quality, including highly-qualified teachers who are compensated at rates comparable to K-12 teachers, a strong professional development system, and the availability of comprehensive services such as health screenings, nutrition support, and family engagement opportunities.

The Connecticut Office of Early Childhood (OEC) was fortunate to receive a four-year PDG expansion grant of approximately $48M, which provided access to high-quality preschool programs for up to 740 children each year, beginning in 2015. This work focuses on four-year-olds from income-eligible families in 13 Connecticut communities, including one of PEER’s partner communities: Bridgeport. The 2018-2019 school year marks the fourth cohort of children who are participating in PDG-funded programs in Connecticut.

Given the tremendous investment represented by the PDG program, it is critical to examine how the PDG program has impacted the lives of Connecticut children. As outlined in the original grant proposal, the University of Connecticut (UCONN) Neag School of Education has been leading an evaluation of the PDG program since 2015. This evaluation examines classroom quality and children’s academic and behavioral outcomes during program participation.

In 2017, the OEC was invited to apply for a supplemental grant to support its PDG program. The OEC decided to apply a portion of these funds toward a collaboration between PEER, UCONN, the State Department of Education (SDE) and the OEC to augment UConn’s PDG evaluation. This new study, led by PEER, will use existing data to examine the association between PDG participation and child outcomes in the kindergarten year. Using existing data (as compared to data collected specifically for this study) makes it more feasible to compare PDG program outcomes to the outcomes of other publicly-funded programs.

Specifically, PEER’s evaluation study will examine the association of PDG enrollment with child outcomes measured during the kindergarten year, including children’s kindergarten entry skills, attendance, suspensions from school, on-time promotion, and the age at which children are identified for Special Education services. The study will focus on children who were 4 years old during the 2015-2016, 2016-17, and 2017-18 school years. PEER researchers will use a quasi-experimental design to compare child outcomes for children who participated in PDG programs to outcomes for similar children who did not participate in PDG programs. Connecticut’s Preschool through 20 and Workforce Information Network (P20-WIN) makes it possible for PEER to analyze de-identified data from the OEC and SDE while protecting student privacy.

As the current PDG funding period draws to a close, many policymakers, early childhood education leaders, parents, and others are concerned about funding for the classrooms established under the PDG program. Given Connecticut’s budget shortfall, it would be difficult to replace federal PDG funding with state funds.  To justify ongoing investment in high-quality early childhood education, it’s important to examine the outcomes associated with Connecticut’s PDG program and identify which elements of the program would be most important to continue or expand. For this reason, PEER feels privileged to partner with the OEC, SDE, and UCONN in research that can inform future decisions about funding for early childhood education programs.

Submitted by Joanna Meyer on March 28, 2019