Pre-K Education: The Good News and the Bad News

A large and growin body of research shows that investing in high-quality pre-kindergarten education yields significant long-term benefits for children and communities. “I think what we’ve learned is a mixture of good news and bad news,” says Tom Schultz, director of Early Childhood Services at Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which provides leadership, advocacy and technical assistance on major educational issues. “The good news is that we have a much better understanding of the importance of the early years in terms of the pathways it creates for learning and school success. The bad news is that, if students are behind when they start school, their experiences in school don’t narrow the achievement gap as they progress through school.”

The good news is proven

Two foundational studies that set the stage for sending a message about the importance of pre-K education are the Abecedarian Project and the HighScope Perry Preschool Study.

The Abecedarian Project, a 1970s program of the FPG Child Development Institute of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied the potential benefits of early childhood education for children from low-income families. According to the website, “Four cohorts of individuals, born between 1972 and 1977, were randomly assigned as infants to either the early educational intervention group or the control group.” Children received full-time educational intervention in a childcare setting from infancy through age five. Each child had an individualized prescription of educational activities. Activities focused on social, emotional and cognitive areas of development with specific emphasis on language.

Among the project’s findings were that the children who participated in the program had higher cognitive test scores from the toddler years through age 21, and academic achievement in reading and math was higher from the primary grades through young adulthood. In addition, the children completed more years of education and were more likely to attend a four-year college. Also, they were older, on average, when their first child was born.

The website notes the study’s implications, including that early childhood education significantly improves the scholastic success and educational attainments of poor children — even into early adulthood. Also, “Welfare reform has increased the likelihood that poverty children will need early childcare. Steps must be taken to ensure that quality childcare is available and affordable for all families. This is especially critical for poor families.” Two other implications include that learning begins in infancy and quality care requires sufficient well-trained staff to ensure that every child receives the kind of appropriate, individualized attention the model provided.

In the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, conducted through four decades by the late David P. Weikart, founder of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation; Larry Schweinhart, HighScope’s current president and their colleagues, children were randomly assigned either to receive the HighScope Perry Preschool program or to receive no comparable program and were then tracked throughout their lives to age 40.

The landmark study shows that adults at age 40, who participated in a preschool program in their early years, are more likely to have graduated from high school, are more likely to hold a job, have higher earnings and have committed fewer crimes. Overall, the study documented a return to society of more than $16 for every tax dollar invested in the early care and education program, according to a press release by HighScope, an independent nonprofit research, development, training and public outreach organization headquartered in Ypsilanti, Mich.

“These findings can be expected of any Head Start, state preschool or child care program similar to the program HighScope coordinated and then studied,” says Schweinhart. “Our teachers were well-qualified, they served no more than eight children from low-income families at a time, they visited these families as part of the program to discuss their child’s development and the classes operated daily for children three and four years old.”

More recent studies continue to prove the value of pre-K education. In April 2012, Boston Public Schools presented results of a pre-K study to its school committee. Impacts of BPS K1 on Children’s Early Numeracy, Language, Literacy, Executive Functioning and Emotional Development sought to answer two primary questions — What is the causal impact of the Boston Public Schools pre-kindergarten program on child early mathematics, language, literacy, executive functioning and emotional development outcomes; and do some student subgroups benefit more from the program than others?

Results showed the largest mathematics and receptive vocabulary impacts to date in a public pre-K evaluation; small effects on children’s executive functioning and emotional development; and all students are benefitting from pre-K education, with some effects being stronger for Latino, English Language Learners (ELL) and free/reduced lunch eligible students. Overall, the study confirms the city’s and district’s investment in pre-K education.

Just a month later, the state of Michigan released a report titled Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) Evaluation Findings 1995-2011, which examined how participation in the Great Start Readiness Program was related to performance later in school. The study sought to answer two questions: Does GSRP participation improve the high school graduation rate, on time and year later; and how much the GSRP effect on grade retention influences the timing of high school graduation?

Among the study’s findings were that significantly more of the students graduated from high school on time; fewer students experienced grade retention; at grades 11 or 12, students had a higher level of proficiency on the Michigan Merit Examination in mathematics and in math and language arts combined; and 43.5 percent of the cost of the GSRP was recouped from savings created from the reduction in grade retentions.

Overcoming the bad news

As Schultz notes earlier, students who are behind when they enter school do not make up the achievement gap. “The education community in general is more aware of the importance of early childhood education as the school reform movement has increased scrutiny about outcomes based on No Child Left Behind and state performance prior to that,” he observes. How states are responding varies across the country, although funding cuts driven by the Great Recession aren’t helping.

According to The State of Preschool 2012 Yearbook, an annual comprehensive report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), which has tracked and measured state preschool funding and quality since 2002, drastic funding cuts at the state level resulted in a 10-year low point in access to quality early childhood education.

According to the report, in the 2011-2012 school year, state funding for pre-K decreased by more than half a billion dollars, adjusted for inflation; the largest one-year drop ever. The cuts resulted in two historic “firsts.” Last year was the first time there was no increase in the percentage of children served in state pre-K and the first year since the Yearbook’s inception that the average funding per child across the states slipped below $4,000, now more than $1,000 less than it was a decade ago.

The funding loss is because, for most states, pre-K education is discretionary. Therefore, when the economy is tight, it’s one of the first things to go. “As we’ve moved out of the recession,” says Dr. W. Steven Barnett, NIEER director, “things have begun to come back somewhat. Still, each state in the country would have had to add an additional $10 million to its budget to get back to where they were before the cuts.”

School districts find creative ways to compensate for the lack of funding. For example, they develop partnerships with community programs already serving the public, essentially contracting with those organizations rather than competing with them. “There are a lot of ways of doing this,” Schultz says. “In some cases, the public school money pays the salary of teachers who works in the centers. In other cases, the partners receive a per child dollar amount and must meet state standards.”

Barnett agrees, noting that these partnerships allow districts to hire certified teachers, bring up the quality of their programs and/or create a longer learning day.

And President Obama’s new initiative to make full-day preschool available to families with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line will help. “The president’s plan includes a cost-sharing arrangement with states, with the entire federal investment of $75 billion covered by a new cigarette tax, and with incentives for states to make programs available for even more middle-class families,” Arne Duncan, secretary of Education, states in the Apr. 18, 2013 edition of the Washington Post.

“I think the debate on the proposal in Congress will be significant in terms of what happens in the future regarding early childhood education,” says Schultz. “I think there’s a larger movement for early childhood education at the state and municipal levels. For example, Michigan is discussing a 50-percent increase in funding from their own revenue, and this is a state that has many other priorities and has endured a tough economic downturn. It’s significant that they’ve come to that decision.”

Clearly, the evidence supports the value of high-quality pre-kindergarten education. With their usual can-do attitude, both individual school districts and states are finding ways to implement strong programs, thus providing long-term dividends for both students and their communities.