American Enterprise Institute research fellow Katherine Stevens introduces a panel of experts on early childhood education. (Photo: Natalie Escobar/Medill News Service)

American Enterprise Institute research fellow Katherine Stevens introduces a panel of experts on early childhood education. (Photo: Natalie Escobar/Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON–Preschool sandboxes have become battlegrounds for political debates about innovative education policies and how to pay for them. The Obama administration and individual states are busy devising strategies based on research, but experts caution lawmakers that preschool is not a silver bullet in helping kids succeed.

Researchers are still struggling to demonstrate that publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs have a big impact on children’s futures, early childhood experts said at an American Enterprise Institute panel Wednesday.

Publicly funded pre-k remains a hot topic in the nation’s capital.

Funding for preschool programs has increased over the past decade on both the national and state level, through the federal Head Start program and state initiatives. These policy decisions have been based on studies that say children in quality preschool programs are more likely to have a higher IQ, graduate high school and earn more money as an adult. However, other research challenges the benefits of pre-k. A study done by Vanderbilt University about Tennessee’s state-funded program .says any short-term benefits of early school-readiness programs fade by second or third grade.

These studies do not necessarily disprove that early childhood education leads to “substantial improvements” in school readiness, especially among disadvantaged kids, panelists said at the Washington-based conservative-leaning think tank. But the clashing claims highlight the fact that it’s difficult to pinpoint what a “quality preschool program” does to improve children’s cognitive and social abilities.

“We need to know more about what goes on inside the black box, what exactly are the characteristics of programs that are producing these encouraging results,” said William Gormley, Jr., the co-director of Georgetown’s Center for Research on Children in the US.

However, it’s not clear what skills preschoolers really need to learn in the first place, , said Dale Farran, a Vanderbilt professor who co-authored the Tennessee study.

Entire preschool programs have been designed around assumptions about the reasoning and language abilities that lead to success. But few psychologists have shown why “concrete skills” such as literacy are more important for a child’s development than “soft skills” such as interacting with adults, she said.

“We do have many children who are quite vulnerable and are living in adverse circumstances who need policies that are going to help them,” she said. “We shouldn’t get wedded to a particular policy and forget what problem we were trying to address”

Data analyses do point toward one consistent finding: there are generally long-term benefits for children who get a quality preschool education.

And even if the data isn’t crystal-clear about the specific benefits of the programs, it doesn’t mean that the government shouldn’t invest the money, said Timothy Bartik, a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. After all, he said, not all skills can be measured by standardized test scores.

Making sure that a child is ready for the future doesn’t just take place in the classroom, either. In order to fully influence early childhood development, it’s important that policy-makers researchers consider the child’s home environment, including languages spoken, Internet access or if both parents are present, said Gormley.

“Pre-k isn’t everything, and there are a lot of other wonderful programs out there that benefit young children,” he said. “[But] pre-k at its best can be quite wonderful.”