Which school do you want to support?
Far too many children, especially from low-income families of color, fall behind in school. One of the most challenging questions in education today is “How can we close the achievement gap?” But let’s ask a different and equally important question - “are there ways to avoid the gap is in the first place?” There are never magic answers in education, but there is considerable evidence that early learning can make a big difference. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Mounting evidence suggests that learning gaps begin long before children begin school. For example, according to one Stanford study, the language gap between rich and poor children begins in infancy. Stanford psychologists found that 2-year-old children of lower-income families may already be six months behind in language development.
Every dollar invested in high-quality early learning programs can save $7 later on.
Very few people doubt the value of early education. Families with the means to do so enroll their kids in preschool, usually starting by age 3 or 4. Children who begin their formal education in a good preschool start life with an enormous set of advantages. According to Early Edge California, an advocacy organization, the research shows that “every dollar invested in high-quality early learning programs can save $7 later on. These savings come in the form of fewer students being held back or getting involved in crime, and more graduating from high school and college and earning higher salaries in their careers.” (Updated research suggests that the 7:1 payout estimate is probably too low.)
No, we can add preschool to the long list of things that are not magic. Education is a highly individual pursuit, conducted at great scale. Trial preschool programs that appear to work can have a funny way of working less well when they are put into action in the context of all the other things going on around them and that come after them. Educating kids is hard, and there are ways to do it badly. Logic suggests that the long-term academic benefits of preschool should be hard to detect, but more than a generation's worth of research on early education seems to prove otherwise: learning is personal and cumulative. Like a snowball on a roll, it tends to grow faster than it melts.
The public school systems in many states include voluntary preschool programs. For example, a portion of California’s lowest-income families obtain access to preschool through Headstart, a Federal program, or First Five, a limited state program.
There are also some state child development funds that are distributed to programs run by local school districts or private providers. San Francisco and San Mateo counties provide preschool through the Preschool for All program. Beyond these exceptions, access to preschool in California is generally available only to children whose families can afford it.
Even an investment that has been shown to pay society back sevenfold in the long run requires an outlay in the short run. Efforts to expand access to preschool in California (such as Proposition 82 in 2006, an unsuccessful voter initiative to tax the state’s wealthiest taxpayers to create a universal preschool system) have repeatedly failed on the details, such as:
As the debates rage on about the perfect vs. the good, time passes, always clockwise. Each year, another half a million children are affected by this inaction.
The social science research about the characteristics of a “high quality” program leaves room for intelligent people to disagree. But as the debates rage on about the perfect vs. the good, time passes, always clockwise. In California there are about half a million children per grade level, so that is a good approximation of the scope of harm from inaction. In the big picture, expanding from today's 13 years of guaranteed basic education to 14 or 15 years may seem like a small addition, but the gap remains.
California’s commitment to early education is uneven at best. In California, in 2012 less than 20% of four-year-olds attended publicly funded preschool, far behind Florida (80%) and Texas (51%). Between 2008 and 2013, overall funding for childcare and preschool decreased by 31 percent. While some funding has been restored, a policy brief, Unmet Need for Preschool Services in California: Statewide and Local Analysis, finds that many children still do not have access to early childhood education programs:
There are signs of a growing consensus to expand public preschool in California.
Children Now is one organization that tackles these policy debates. Its annual "California Children's Report Card" assembles important indicators about progress in providing meaningful support for children in a variety of capacities including early education.
When California eventually finds a way to invest in preschool, it at least will have done its homework. The state won a $70 million federal Race To The Top Early Learning Challenge Grant that supported development of a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), a set of tools to help local agencies collect and disseminate information about the quality of early learning programs. According to EdSource: "As of February 2016, only 3,300 of the more than 50,000 centers statewide had been rated. Evaluators are focusing first on assessing preschools and childcare facilities that serve low-income children and those with special needs."
Are these programs any good? The Learning Policy Institute’s report, The Building Blocks of High-Quality Early Childhood Education Programs, identifies 10 important elements of high-quality early childhood education programs.
Early learning program quality depends in large part on the support and preparation of the people who work in them. But early educators are among the lowest-paid workers in the country. Nearly one-half of child care workers are part of families that participate in at least one public assistance program, such as Medicaid or food stamps. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley finds that policies in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. “shortchange the two million early educators who are shaping the future of 12 million children in childcare and preschool…”
How is California doing? Check their interactive map.
Based on the 2008 California RAND Preschool Study, about 60% of California children attend some sort of center-based program. Unfortunately, more than 40% of California children begin their formal education in kindergarten, the earliest grade that is universally provided through the public school system.
In 2012-13 school districts all over the state also expanded the public system to provide Transitional Kindergarten. "TK" programs serve children just below the cut-off age for regular kindergarten admission. (A 2014 proposal to expand TK programs to serve all California 4-year-olds received wide support.) The law requires that these programs be the same length as the kindergarten classes in a given school.
Outside California, most kindergarten programs are “full day,” which means they last five to six hours. Kindergarten attendance is not mandatory in California and it remains three to four hours in length in many California schools. In 2009, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reported that the number of full day programs in California was growing. About 43% of the state’s kindergarteners were enrolled in full day programs in 2007-08, with the practice most common in Los Angeles County and in schools serving low income students.
The focus on preschool and its particular importance in giving low income youngsters more time to learn has intensified in recent years. In 2013 - and again in 2014 - President Obama urged Congress to invest more in early learning.
Occasionally, pundits or political commentators spar over the question of whether universal preschool is necessary, or whether children that begin their schooling with a half day of kindergarten are necessarily at a long-term educational disadvantage. These arguments can become heated, but when examined closely, most of the disagreements are about matters of money rather than about whether preschool makes a difference.
As usual, a good shortcut for figuring out what constitutes good education is to look at what happens in wealthy communities. Very few children of means begin their formal education in kindergarten.
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