“Fewer than 3 in 10 American four-year-olds attend a high-quality preschool program filled with well-organized learning experiences, guided exploration, art, and storytelling — and led by a skilled teacher. The availability of high-quality care and educational services for infants and toddlers is even lower. And, the gap is especially pronounced in low-income communities. Our failure to ensure access to strong preschool is morally indefensible and economically counterproductive. Strong early learning can translate into school success, which can lead to college and good jobs and ultimately a robust economy. Research shows that every public dollar spent on high-quality early childhood education returns $7 through increased productivity and savings on public assistance and criminal justice programs. That’s why President Obama has announced a comprehensive plan to help every child develop a strong foundation for future success.”
In February, as part of his State of the Union address, President Obama announced a plan to implement universal preschool in the United States. Many people saw this announcement as a promising shift in our nation’s values, a shift toward recognizing the crucial role that early childhood education plays in shaping the futures of our nation’s citizens. Others have been more skeptical of such a plan, doubting the long-term effectiveness of ECE and questioning the return on such an investment.
In a recent policy report, titled Getting the Facts Right on Pre-K and the President’s Pre-K Proposal, National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) Director W. Steven Barnett examines President Obama’s proposal for universal preschool, acknowledging that “public policy is best advanced based on impartial analysis of all the available evidence.”
The report ultimately concludes that “The Obama administration’s new universal pre-K proposal comports favorably with our full review of the evidence… When all the evidence is considered it is found that large-scale public programs have produced meaningful long-term gains for children and not just disadvantaged children… Large gains depend on high-quality pre-K.”
- Do the effects of high-quality preschool programs persist or fade out by third grade? The most recent peer-reviewed meta-analysis summarizes the results of 123 studies. It found that despite some decline in effects after children entered school, on average effects did not disappear and remained substantial….
- What about the president’s statement that every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than $7 later on? The study most relevant to this is the Chicago Longitudinal Study, which reported a $7.14 to $1 benefit-cost ratio. The Chicago pre-k programs in this study were similar to current state pre-k programs in design and cost, incorporating the features of high quality listed by the president’s proposal. Run by Chicago public schools, they served thousands of children, hardly a “hot house” program. Their effects on achievement at kindergarten entry are similar in size to those found for Oklahoma’s universal pre-k program. When the economic analysis was updated based on more recent follow-up data, the estimated rate of return for these Chicago preschools rose to about $11 to $1….
- Does high-quality pre-k benefit most children or only disadvantaged children, and which is more effective, targeted or universal pre-k? Studies in the United States and abroad (where universal programs have a longer history), tend to find that preschool education has larger benefits for disadvantaged children, but that high-quality programs still have substantive benefits for other children. …
- Can large-scale public programs produce substantive long-term gains for children, and how effective are current programs, including Head Start? Many studies find that large-scale public programs have produced meaningful long-term gains for children. Although they have tended to produce smaller effects than some of the well-known small-scale programs, public programs also have been less well-funded and, therefore, less intensive. Quality matters greatly. Underfunded programs with low standards produce few significant benefits while higher quality large-scale programs have produced substantive long-term gains. The Chicago pre-K centers were operated by the public schools, providing a clear test of a large-scale public program. Several states provide additional examples as do national programs in other countries that have been subject to rigorous evaluations.
We are encouraged, but not surprised, by the findings that affirm the long-term benefits of quality early childhood education, benefits that hopefully, one day, all children will reap.