The High 5s Project


The High 5s project is part of the Robin Hood Early Childhood Research Initiative, a partnership between MDRC and the Robin Hood Foundation focused on improving the life trajectories of low-income children in New York City. The Initiative’s first project, Making Pre-K Count (MPC), was designed to improve pre-k math instruction using the Building Blocks curriculum. The High 5s program enhancement is designed to provide an additional, crucial boost in MPC children’s kindergarten math skills, serving as a bridge to math instruction in first grade and beyond.

In High 5s, kindergarten students who experienced Building Blocks in pre-k through MPC meet three times a week in groups of four with a trained facilitator from Bank Street College of Education. Facilitators provide students with targeted instruction as they play fun, engaging math games that pick up where Building Blocks left off. The groups meet outside of regular instruction time for approximately 28 weeks.

MPC and High 5s are rooted in studies showing that preschoolers with strong early math skills do better in both math and reading in later elementary school. Children who maintain these math skills are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. Thousands of children involved in the MPC study received a high-quality math education in pre-k. High 5s aims to increase the likelihood that children will be able to maintain their early math gains into later elementary school and beyond.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The High 5s project studies an innovative effort to extend the academic gains made with high-quality preschool math education into longer-term educational attainment. It leverages the groundwork laid in Making Pre-K Count (MPC) to test the claim that preschool gains can be prolonged with a targeted program that continues to boost skills in kindergarten.

There is convincing evidence that if preschoolers’ strong early math skills can persist at least into later elementary school, these students are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. Math instruction in kindergarten is typically underemphasized, however, suggesting that MPC may be at risk of the “fade-out” problem that has long plagued high-quality early childhood programs. The most promising combination of interventions is therefore to provide children with:

  • the Building Blocks preschool curriculum, already put in place with the support of intensive training and coaching for classroom teachers through MPC, followed by
  • High 5s, small-group kindergarten math clubs that provide both enrichment and highly-individualized instruction, resources that generally are not available in New York City’s kindergarten classrooms.

The two years of linked interventions, in which the High 5s picks up where the Building Blocks curriculum leaves off, offer significant prospects for longer-term impacts.

A rigorous evaluation is needed to confirm with direct evidence that large-scale implementation of MPC followed by High 5s will produce the expected positive results and to confirm that the kindergarten enhancement adds measureable value to the pre-k intervention. By combining the pre-k and kindergarten interventions with careful evaluation, we will tackle two of the most pressing issues in the field of early education: how to improve the transition from preschool to kindergarten and early elementary school and how to sustain the impacts of early childhood interventions that operate at scale.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

During the 2014-2015 school year, the High 5s research team conducted a successful pilot phase at three public schools that received Building Blocks as part of the Making Pre-K Count (MPC) intervention. The pilot sites were selected to ensure representation of the variability in MPC sites, taking into account a number of factors, including borough, ethnicity/race, schedules, and capacity to implement the High 5s model. Facilitators were hired, trained, and supervised by Bank Street College. The pilot study was designed to determine the logistical feasibility of a full-scale High 5s intervention in New York City, and the research team focused on student attendance and engagement, curricular implementation, instructional quality, and reception by teachers, school administrators, and families, among other measures, to determine whether the intervention could be successfully implemented at scale. The pilot year gave us confidence that High 5s can be implemented with fidelity and quality in MPC schools, that children’s attendance can be high, and that children can make sufficient progress in their math skills. Lessons from these pilot experiences will strengthen the implementation of the High 5s model during the full-scale phase of the program in 2015-2016.

While the pilot evaluation of High 5s was focused on logistical feasibility and program implementation, the full-scale evaluation design must achieve two goals: (1) determine whether the High 5s clubs sustain or increase the effects of implementing the MPC Building Blocks curriculum in the preschool year, and (2) preserve our ability to determine the effects of the MPC intervention without any kindergarten enhancement. All of our design considerations begin with the sample of schools and centers that have already been randomly assigned to treatment or control conditions as part of MPC and build upon the comprehensive data collection strategy that is already in place.

The full implementation phase of High 5s will be offered to the children in 24 public school sites that were randomly assigned to receive the Building Blocks intervention during the 2014-2015 school year as part of MPC. There are two points of randomization, then, in the overall MPC and High 5s design: in the first, which has already occurred as part of the MPC evaluation, public preschools were randomized to either a business-as-usual group or a group receiving the Building Blocks intervention. In the second randomization, children in the public school Building Blocks group who return to those schools for kindergarten will be individually randomized to either High 5s or to a comparison group that receives regular kindergarten programming without High 5s. This will result in three research groups: (1) a group that receives no math enhancement in either preschool or kindergarten, (2) a group of children who receive only the preschool math intervention, and (3) a group of children who receive both the preschool and kindergarten interventions. The design will allow us to test both the impact of the MPC preschool intervention by itself and the impact of the preschool intervention as enhanced by the High 5s kindergarten add-on.