Can Universal Preschool Close the Achievement Gap?

Two weeks ago, my column focused on the growing achievement gap between low-income children and their wealthier peers. In fact, students whose families live in poverty enter Kindergarten already lagging behind students from middle and upper income families. (One of the reasons for this may be the thirty million word gap, a study by Hart & Risley showing that low-income preschoolers hear an average of thirty million fewer words than their wealthier peers by age three.) I proposed that one of the possible ways to narrow the achievement gap was through expansion of early childhood programs for all children.

For years, research has shown that quality early childhood education can have long-term benefits for children. The HighScope Perry study and the Abecedarian Project both demonstrated that children who attend preschool require fewer remedial classes or special education services, are more likely to graduate from high school, have higher earnings, have higher job stability, and commit fewer crimes than those who do not. Over the past twenty years, our knowledge of the human brain has grown as well; we now know that the period from birth through age three is critical in the formation of neural connections. Early experiences can have a lasting effect on a child’s developing interpersonal and cognitive skills.

For all of these reasons, our government has worked hard to help expand access to pre-Kindergarten programs for three- and four-year-olds. The Preschool Development Grants program is a competitive program allowing states to apply for funds to build or enhance preschool infrastructure to provide high-quality preschool for low- to moderate-income four-year-olds. Currently, 36 states (including Rhode Island) receive these funds to develop or expand their programs. There is additional federal funding for Early Head Start - Child Care Partnerships, which promotes the development of partnerships between Early Head Start centers and local childcare providers, with the aim of improving access to quality programs for children under the age of three. While this administration is clearly committed to expanding access to quality early childhood education for families in need, will these efforts really make a difference?

Last year, Professors Greg J. Duncan and Aaron J. Sojourner released a report on the effects of a two-year, center-based early childhood education intervention on income-based gaps in cognitive ability and academic achievement. They reviewed the data from a preschool program provided to children born in the 1980s. The services provided included a weekly home-visiting program (with a curriculum of child development and parent education, as well as referrals to social services) for infants up to one year old; and a free, high quality, language rich and game based full-day (seven to nine hour) preschool program for children from age one through age three. Their findings were dramatic: they concluded that a universal preschool program for children under age three would virtually eliminate income-based gaps in IQ by age three, and that these effects would continue through age five, with positive effects persisting even through age eight.

Given these results, why then was an article titled The Case Against Universal Preschool, suggesting that universal preschool programs don’t provide a cost-benefit, published just a few weeks ago in the Atlantic? The reason is that many people use the term preschool when they really mean pre-kindergarten. And, while many states support universal pre-K in theory, very few actually provide it. There are two main reasons why these pre-K programs may not be showing such promising results: one is that the programs only enroll students who are age four, not providing any educational support prior to that age. The second is that these children are segregated by income, since the programs only enroll students from families in poverty. In fact, most state pre-K programs are targeted at low-income students, as is the government funding to states in the Preschool Development Grants and Early Head Start – Child Care Partnerships mentioned above. The powerful data collected by researchers Duncan and Sojourner reflected students grouped in a heterogeneous preschool setting, with children from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Duncan and Sojourner found that the average hours of center-based care received by children enrolled in Early Head Start was 437 hours, versus an average of 2080 hours of center-based care received by the children in their study. There is also tremendous variability in the quality of early childhood education provided, based upon the experience and training of the teachers. It is historically very difficult to attract and keep teachers in early childhood positions, due to the low pay: the average yearly salary of a Head Start teacher is $23,800. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) stresses the need for high quality programs and teachers in their Call for Excellence.

The take-away? Universal preschool CAN help to reduce or eliminate the income-based achievement gap, IF it is provided for children from one to three years of age. Yes, it will be costly, but it is an investment in our future. Researcher Aaron J. Sojourner is an economist; he states that, “Whatever happens during those first three years has an outsized impact. So if you want to raise adult productivity, spend your next dollar there, in these early years.” In fact, a cost-benefit analysis of the Perry Preschool Program in 2010 found a rate of return of 7 – 10%, well above the average return of 1.27% for a private equity fund. Universal preschool, beginning at one year of age, must be made available to all students (perhaps on a sliding pay scale based on family income, as in many European countries) if we are serious about closing the achievement gap. The real question is not whether we as a nation can afford to invest in early childhood education, but rather, can we afford not to?

This post was originally published at GoLocalProv.

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