Public pre-school significantly improves the language, reading, and math skills of four-year-olds, according to a newly published report that analyzes and integrates evaluations of 84 public preschool programs. Several of the studies also show benefits to the children’s socio-emotional development and health, according to a consortium of researchers headed by Hirokazu Yoshikawa of New York University and Christina Weiland of the University of Michigan. Investing in our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education was published this October by the Society for Research in Child Development and the Foundation for Child Development.
It’s the Quality of the School That Matters
It is not just attending a preschool but a high-quality preschool that makes the difference. Researchers stress that the quality of interaction between child and teacher is the most critical variable, greater than the number of children in the classroom, the ratio of teachers to children, and the teachers’ qualifications. The most meaningful interactions foster both higher-learning skills and content in a specific curriculum area such as early math. Warm, responsive conversations, together with learning-focused interactions, can be shown to predict the persistence of gains into the primary-school years.
The researchers focus on preschool because, according to the report, “The foundations of brain architecture, and subsequent lifelong developmental potential, are laid down in a child’s early years through a process that is exquisitely sensitive to external influence.”
According to the National Institute on Early Education Research, in 2012 28% of four-year-olds and 3% of three -year-olds were enrolled in public preschool. Including all publicly funded programs like Head Start and special education preschool, the figures are 42% and 15%. There’s also a lot of data on early education in Massachusetts. For example, 14% of four-year-olds and 3% of three-year-olds were enrolled in public preschool. With all publicly funded programs, the figures are 26% and 13%.
Two scaled-up programs, one in Boston and the second in Tulsa, are important for the new and rigorously evaluated findings. In the past, research was limited to disadvantaged learners. Since both of these preschool programs are available to the whole community, it was possible to ask about a differential impact on lower-income and middle-income children. In fact, children in these programs gained between a half-year and a year in reading and math skills. (The average gain for all 84 studies of preschoolers was one-third of a year.) Lower-income children gained more ground than middle-income students. Special needs and second-language learners also gained from attending preschool. All students gained from a second year of preschool but not twice as much as they did from a single year. This may result, the researchers hypothesize, from the fact that the second year usually doesn’t build systematically on the first. Often, three- and four-year-olds share the same classroom.
What about the Pre-K “Fadeout?”
Past research has shown that the gains among lower-income children who attend preschool dissipate over the years, a phenomenon often referred to as “fadeout.” The researchers point to evidence that despite what they call a “convergence” in achievement, studies of low-income children who attended preschool show higher high-school graduation rates, years of education completed, and earnings, as well as lower rates of crime and teen pregnancy than among those who did not.
Although the researchers concede that it is difficult to formulate a cost-benefit analysis for prekindergarten, the studies reviewed all suggest that its long-term effects are beneficial to society in terms of savings on child protection, welfare, and criminal justice and gains in earnings and economic productivity. Estimates of economic gains from universal preschool programs range from three-to-five dollars gained for every dollar invested. This gain is greater than for other measures tested, such as decreasing elementary-school class size.
Ultimately, the success of the Tulsa and Boston programs suggests to the researchers that large-scale, high-quality programs with substantial, measurable results can be implemented across large, diverse populations.
Facing Up to Fade-Out: About Preschool and the Birth-to-Third Grade Continuum
Lisa Guernsey’s article “Facing Up to Fade-Out: About Preschool and the Birth-to-Third Grade Continuum” that appeared in the New America Foundation expands on President Obama’s State of the Union push to increase access to preschool education. However, Guernsey notes that the “fade-out” effect weakens early educators’ arguments that a preschool education is necessary to be successful. “Fade-out” suggests even if children are not enrolled in a preschool program, they will eventually catch up to the preschool program students. The advantages that program students once had will disappear. Even though this discovery may imply that early educators’ work is for nothing, Guernsey disagrees. Instead, she says that schools are spending time and effort to bring non-program students up to the same level as program students. Therefore, program students are not progressing; they are just waiting for the non-program students to catch up. Guernsey ends the article with a call to reform the education system at the preschool level and beyond.
Early Childhood Education: “Fade-out” in Context
Rob Grunewald from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis compiled data and studies to show that a preschool education has a positive, lifelong impact on students. He suggests that those who believe in the “fade-out” effect do not look at how early childhood education can establish and solidify children’s executive functioning and social-emotional skills. Not only that, but several long-term effects can be detected in students who had the benefit of a preschool education. In order to support his point, Grunewald referenced the Perry Preschool study. The study found that 70% of program students graduated from high school on time while only 48% of non-program students graduated on time. Over 35% of program students attended a four year college while only 15% of non-program students did so. Fewer program students served time in jail as opposed to non-program students.
Comparisons between program and non-program children are not all academic in nature. Because fewer program students serve time, it is evident that a preschool education gives children not only a solid academic foundation, but also the executive functioning that Grunewald mentions (i.e. discipline). When students leave preschool, they have more social intelligence, are able to handle the demands of a full day of school, and grow into successful adults. On March 6, 2013 during The Daily Show, Jon Stewart also emphasized the importance of early education by referencing the Head Start report:
“Long term improvement for Head Start participants [is based] on outcomes such as school attainment, earnings, and crime reduction.”
Stewart also mentions that when recruits enter one of the branches of the military, they often have not graduated from high school and cannot meet the rigors of military life. If students have early education development, they will be more prepared for school and adult life.
Grunewald also makes clear that school quality can influence the fade-out effect. If students come from a high quality preschool program and move into a public school with fewer resources and opportunities, then they will not be able to expand on their skills. In that sense, students may “fade out,” but this is not because of early education.
In order to correct the “fade out” effect, issues in education beyond preschool should be addressed.