Q&A: This new study could help build the case for Chicago’s universal pre-K expansion

A researcher with short brown hair and a striped collared shirt poses for a headshot.
Principal investigator and NORC senior research scientist Stacy Ehrlich. (NORC headshot contributed by Stacy Ehrlich)

As Chicago struggles to increase enrollment in prekindergarten programs, a new study could help build the case for the district’s universal pre-K expansion.

Opening full-day preschool classrooms closer to where students live is linked with boosted enrollment and academic outcomes through second grade, according to research released this month.

Starting in 2013, Chicago launched a series of policy efforts that increased the number of full-day pre-K classrooms and reallocated them across the city, intentionally placing classrooms in neighborhoods with historically low pre-K enrollment rates. That increased access to full-day preschools was associated with higher reading scores, math scores, and academic grades through second grade, particularly for Black students and those living in low-income areas, researchers from NORC at the University of Chicago, Start Early, and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found.

These findings, which extend from research published last October and measure six years of Chicago Public Schools administrative data leading up to the pandemic, come as the city’s preschool programs stand at a crossroads. Steep drops in enrollment, especially for Black 3- and 4-year-olds, startled parents, educators, and policymakers last fall. The district plans to open 62 new classrooms in the coming months as it advances toward its goal of universal pre-K, but is having trouble persuading parents to enroll their children

We sat down with principal investigator and NORC senior research scientist Stacy Ehrlich to learn more. 

This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What were you looking to find that other researchers had not found before?

A lot of the research on preschool so far that people are familiar with focuses on the impacts of those preschool programs — an evaluation of either a curriculum or an approach. In this case, we were more interested in understanding whether access to full day pre-K within Chicago Public Schools looked different after a set of intentional policy changes had been implemented. 

By access, we mean: Are those children now living closer to a school that has a full-day preschool option for them? And if there was an increase in access, do we end up seeing a change in enrollment? All of these policy efforts were intended to create more equity in access and enrollment, so we were particularly interested in high-priority student groups, which included students of color, English language learners, those who live in neighborhoods with lower incomes and higher rates of unemployment. 

It’s a shift because it’s not just the impact of preschool, but the impact of trying to intentionally geographically place these full-day school-based options in particular neighborhoods for particular student groups.

What did you learn about location and access during your study that policymakers need to know now?

As we’re seeing more of these high-priority students opting into full-day pre-K options under the policy changes, we’re seeing better outcomes. That supports the notion that we should be providing these opportunities, particularly for families who may not have had easy access to them in the past. 

Especially under the Biden administration, there’s a lot of talk about the expansion of pre-K. One thing to think about is where you are placing those programs — particularly full day programs. Previous research links enrollment in full-day programs with higher attendance rates, in comparison with half-day programs, and families have said full-day programs are easier to manage logistically than half-day programs. Those kinds of programs may meet the needs of families better than half-day programs, or programs that are further away from where families live. If you understand what families’ needs are, you can have a really great impact on who ultimately attends, and then help to bolster those students’ potential outcomes in the future. 

Geographic location is going to be important. Having full-day access, particularly as people need to return back to work, may prove to be very important. But I am sure that there are other needs that families have, and part of the work now is to figure out what those are and how to meet those needs. 

What surprised you as you ran the study?

The biggest surprise was how large and consistent our findings were, particularly for Black students. They are the group of students where we see not only the biggest changes in second grade outcomes. That pathway — geographic access to schools leading to increases in enrollment among student groups, and then increases in kindergarten entry skills, which ultimately were related to second grade outcomes — statistically really pops out for those students.

Why do you think that pathway strengthened so much for Black students in particular?

The policies themselves were really focused on communities where Black students are most likely to live, meaning Black students lived closer to full-day school-based pre-K options post-policy.  It could have been that you put those options in those neighborhoods and there wasn’t uptake — perhaps those families would have opted to enroll their students in a different program, or chosen not to enroll in pre-K at all — but that wasn’t the case. To us, it does speak to this idea that those programs were offering something that those families felt like they wanted and needed, and took advantage of.

How did you collect your data?

We were using CPS administrative data. We defined our cohorts by kindergarten and took a look back to see which students had been enrolled in pre-K the year before. If there were kids who were in pre-K but did not enroll in CPS for kindergarten and onward, we also included them, because we wanted to try to capture the universe of anyone who could be eligible for pre-K in CPS. The only people who aren’t included in the study are students who were never in CPS, such as students who may have always gone to a private school.

What were some of the study’s limitations?

It’s not a causal study, so you can’t make a direct causal link between geographic access and outcomes. Other factors — even other aspects of these policy changes — could have been happening at the same time to help account for these increases in enrollment and then, ultimately, improvements in outcomes. 

Can you point us to some of the other variables that could help explain your results?

Alongside the expansion of full day pre-K within the district, other policy changes were happening at the same time. The process went online, so more information about publicly funded pre-K programs became readily available on the web through the city of Chicago. There were prioritization processes in place in CPS around choices that families were making for pre-K. And there were also some boots-on-the-ground efforts to try and increase enrollment in pre-K, particularly in some of these neighborhoods that are primarily Black, that are lower-income. It’s hard to pull each of those pieces apart.

What question does this study raise for you that you’d like to answer next?

What’s happening in community-based organizations at the same time?  It doesn’t look like the policy had negative enrollment in community-based organizations, but anecdotally, people say it may have. There’s always an interest in trying to understand how changes in the district might impact enrollment within community-based organizations. 

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