Easing the Risk of School Failure with Early Learning Partnerships
The following article was published in the March 2010 issue of OCD's newsletter Developments. To download a PDF of the issue, click here.

Five years after it was started, a Pennsylvania early education initiative is showing how dramatically the prospects of young, at-risk children can improve when community partnerships create high-quality learning opportunities that give them the skills and experiences they need to succeed in kindergarten, first grade, and beyond. Pennsylvania allocated $86.4 million to continue state funding for the initiative, Pre-K Counts, following last year’s protracted budget debate in Harrisburg. A recent evaluation of Pre-K Counts suggests that decision was a prudent reinvestment in the future of more than 10,000 young children at risk of academic failure across Pennsylvania.

Most children who have participated, for example, showed gains in development and early learning skills ranging from language to classroom behavior that raised their competencies to expected age-appropriate levels or above by the time they entered kindergarten, according to a recent evaluation conducted by the Scaling Progress in Early Childhood Settings (SPECS) team at the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Another key outcome is the reduction in the number of young children who are classified as developmentally delayed and eligible for early intervention services. The study reports that 21 percent of the children had such a classification when they entered their local Pre-K Counts program. But at exit, the percentage of children with delays had fallen to 8 percent.

"That is a dramatic increase in children’s real-life functional skills," said Stephen J. Bagnato, EdD, professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and director of SPECS for Pre-K Counts. The evaluation, he said, leaves little doubt that such outcomes were driven by Pre-K Counts, a public-private partnership among state government and philanthropies started in 2004 to create a high-quality early care and education network for at-risk preschool-aged children. “What the statistics clearly show is the gains that children make are beyond what you would expect based on maturation alone.”

Evidence-Based Initiative

Pre-K Counts is guided by decades of research on effective early childhood intervention in the United States and is directed at preventing the progressive declines that studies suggest children of poverty experience when denied the benefits of quality early learning experiences.

The SPECS evaluation, funded by The Heinz Endowments, examines Pre-K Counts from 2005 to 2008, when more than 10,000 children participated in programs run by school-community partnerships in 21 school districts across the state. Those programs included 489 classrooms and more than 1,100 teachers.

Key elements include ongoing mentoring of teachers, collaborative school-community leadership, ongoing evaluation, collaboration with human service agencies, creative options for parent participation, use of Keystone STARS program quality standards and the Pennsylvania Early Learning Standards (PAELS), and a requirement that programs integrate early care and education, Head Start, and Early Intervention.

Kindergarten-Ready Children

The SPECS team did not randomly assign children to treatment or control groups in the primary evaluation of Pre-K Counts, although experimental design was used in smaller sub-studies of specific issues. Instead, children were assessed when they entered the program and their trajectories of progress at entry and exit from Pre-K Counts were measured and analyzed. In addition, evaluators compared their competencies with age-appropriate norms based on the Basic School Skills Inventory and other national indices.

One-third of Pre-K Counts children were classified as at-risk or as developmentally delayed and qualifying for early intervention services from the county when they entered the program. The rest, about 67 percent, were performing in typical age-appropriate ranges. After participating in Pre-K Counts, 19 percent more students were performing in the typical range of performance.

Pre-K Counts children made significant progress toward achieving age-expected performance. For example, the study reports that the nearly 7,000 Pre-K Counts children who were age-eligible to make the transition to kindergarten showed at least average age-expected learning competencies in spoken language, reading, writing, mathematics, daily living skills, and classroom behavior. Moreover, they exceeded national norms in spoken language, writing, mathematics, and classroom behavior.

And at transition to kindergarten, the average child in Pre-K Counts met 80 percent of the early childhood success competencies in the Pennsylvania Early Learning Standards. More specifically: 87 percent attained competency in communicating ideas, experiences, and feelings; 85 percent in demonstrating initiative and curiosity; 81 percent in self-regulation; 81 percent in listening and understanding skills; 78 percent in comprehending information from written or oral stories and texts; 76 percent in increasing their understanding of letter knowledge; and 73 percent in learning about numbers, numerical representation, and simple numerical operations.

Many more Pre-K Counts children entered kindergarten equipped with the skills they need to succeed than would be expected in their school districts. “These kids were dramatically at-risk for failure in kindergarten,” Dr. Bagnato said. “By the time 7,000 kids got to kindergarten, their independent assessments showed that only 2.4 percent of them would qualify for being retained in grade or placed in special education classrooms. And the historic special education placement rate in all of these districts was in the range of 5 percent to 30 percent, with the average being 18 percent.”

Evaluators found that the amount of time children spend in the program matters. During the period of study, children’s participation ranged from 4 to 24 months. The study reports that, on average, initial functional progress was achieved only after a child spent at least 6.4 months in the program. However, children who participated the longest showed the strongest gains. “We did a dosage analysis,” said Dr. Bagnato, “and what we found was that children had to be in the program between 11 and 20 months before you got truly meaningful and functional changes in their problem-solving, language, motor, social, and self-regulatory skills.”

Other Keys To Success

Although most of the resources for evaluating Pre-K Counts were spent on determining how well children did in the program, the SPECS team devoted additional time looking at the various program features to determine how they influenced child outcomes. Preliminary findings suggest that in addition to the amount of time children spend in Pre-K Counts, several other program features appear to have contributed to their success.

Improved overall program quality was found to be among the more influential features. The study found that children in local programs that elevated their overall quality to Keystone STARS levels 3-4 experienced better early learning outcomes than children enrolled in programs that had lower levels of quality and had only made negligible improvements.

Evaluators also said Pre-K Counts benefitted from policies which aligned assessment, curriculum content, teaching, program quality, and expected outcomes with state and professional standards, such as PAELS, Keystone STARS, the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, and National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) standards.

Another key program feature reported to be highly influential is the ongoing mentoring offered to teachers and childcare providers through Keystone STARS, which evaluators found enhanced teaching practices, program quality and children’s progress.

A glimpse of how such features can influence child outcomes was provided by a random-assignment sub-study of 36 Pre-K Counts classrooms in which observers using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System analyzed teacher instructional, management and other behaviors. The children who experienced the most significant gains in early learning skills had teachers who, compared to their colleagues, were more structured, responsive, had better interactions with children, used praise more effectively and used more positive strategies for dealing with issues such as inattentiveness and poor social behaviors. “What that tells us,” Dr. Bagnato said, “is that if you follow the standards and teachers are mentored on those standards, you get these kinds of positive changes and improvement in the overall effectiveness of teaching.”


Bagnato, S.J., Salaway, J., & Suen, H. (2009). Pre-K Counts in Pennsylvania for Youngsters’ Early School Success: Authentic Outcomes for an Innovative Prevention and Promotion Initiative. Pittsburgh, PA: Early Childhood Partnerships, The Heinz Endowments. www.heinz.org/UserFiles/Library/SPECS%20for%20PKC%202009%20Final%20Research%20Report%0113009.pdf

The executive summary of Pre-K Counts in Pennsylvania for Youngsters’ Early School Success: Authentic Outcomes for an Innovative Prevention and Promotion Initiative is available online at: www.uclid.org:8080/uclid/pdfs/ecp_specs_report.pdf