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Lesson 4.1

Early Childhood:
Yes, Preschool Matters

America would be more equal, with this one change.

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Image: Kid Crossing CC Mike Gifford

Far too many children, especially from low-income families of color, fall behind in school. It starts early.

A perennial question about education policy 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 an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Early learning programs are preventive: they head off achievement gaps before they happen.

A video preview like this is available for each lesson. You can view them at the top of each chapter.

"Early learning" starts at birth

Learning gaps begin long before kindergarten. According to one Stanford study, for example, 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.

Heading off gaps from the start implies helping parents prepare for their role as their child's first teacher. Nurse-Family Partnership programs begin even before birth, working with new mothers. Rigorous evaluations of these programs show lasting effects many years later, including academic results.

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 enough money enroll their kids in preschool programs and activities, 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.

At a societal level, universal early education is almost universally acknowledged as a smart investment. Estimates of the long-term return on investment from preschool programs range from a low of 200%-400% (based on a meta-analysis of multiple studies) to 700% or more. These gains 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.

Many developed nations have taken action on this research, as indicated playfully in the crayon chart below. American families that can afford it send their kids to private preschool, but most kids are out of luck.

Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, "Education at a Glance Indicator C2: How do early childhood education systems differ around the world? Chart by the Center for American Progress

Is Preschool a Magic Answer?

No, of course not. Preschool belongs on the long list of things-that-are-not-magic. Educating kids is hard, and there are ways to mess it up. Trial preschool programs that appear to work exquisitely in small-scale tests can have a funny way of more modestly at scale.

But the cumulative evidence is awfully persuasive. For example, logically it would make sense for the academic benefits of preschool to fade out over years of education. It ought to be hard to statistically discern the effects of preschool on seventh-graders. But more than a generation's worth of skeptical research on early education seems to prove otherwise: learning is cumulative. Like a snowball on a roll, knowledge tends to grow faster than it melts.

Early education isn't magic — but investing in it is good policy. Failing to provide early education is foolish and harmful.

In California, preschool is mainly for those who can pay

Public preschool is expanding all over America, but availability varies greatly by state. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers collects and publishes data annually to help understand the changes and differences. Some states, notably including Florida, now invest in near-universal public preschool for four year olds. Vermont and Washington, D.C. have taken the next step — they provide free public preschool to nearly all of their three year olds, too.

In California, by contrast, most kids still get their first taste of school in kindergarten. Only one in ten three year olds in California attends a public preschool program. The story is more mixed for four year-olds because of a program known as "Transitional Kindergarten" (TK). Oversimplifying a bit, TK adds another grade level to the K-12 sequence, but only for students born in the months of September through December. (The image below shows enrollment in California TK, Federal Headstart, California First Five, and special education programs in 2016-17. Click image for full NIEER report.)

A Difficult Little Increase

The benefits of early education are rarely seriously disputed anymore. Expanding public education from 13 years (K-12) to 15 years would unquestionably make the state's education system more successful and more equitable. Of course it would cost money, but it's worth considering the big picture. In rough terms, making preschool universal would expand the public's direct investment in educating each student by something like 10%, not counting the one-time cost of new buildings and playgrounds.

So far, California has not managed to find the political will to make it happen. 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 befuddling details, such as these:

Befuddling Details

What does it mean for a program to be "high quality" when children are too young to prove what they have learned through tests?

Should preschool be offered universally, like K-12 education, or should it be funded only for low-income families?

Should it be completely public, or is it okay to incorporate existing private preschools through a voucher-funded system?

If new schools or classrooms are required, who will pay for them?

Should the building requirements resemble the standards for school buildings or for private home-based preschools?

Should preschools be built as an expansion of the existing school system, or should they be separate institutions?

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. The cost of year of public preschool in California (about $7,000 in 2018) is less than a twelfth the cost of a year of prison. 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.

Crawling Back from Recession Cuts

California education suffered greatly in the Great Recession. As of 2017, the number of funded preschool seats in the state still had not recovered to pre-recession levels, despite the boom in the stock market and recovery in education funding.

In the long run, children and families are only protected from budget cuts by public will, as measured in voters' willingness to tax themselves. There are signs of a growing consensus to expand public preschool in California. Here are some examples:

Signs of Support for Early Education

A 2016 poll from the Public Policy Institute of California indicates an overwhelming majority (68%) of Californians see pre-school as important to K-12 success.

In 2015 the state legislature passed a bill (AB47 - McCarty) intended to compel the state to expand public preschool programs. Governor Brown vetoed the measure, on the grounds that funds should be allocated through the normal budget process.

The 2016 state budget increased reimbursements for early childhood providers and expanded access to full day state preschool for about 9,000 children.

The Right Start Commission’s report, Rebuilding the California Dream, is part of a high powered advocacy effort to create a child-centered system that nurtures every child from the beginning of life.

The California Legislative Analyst recommends full-day preschool for all low-income working families.

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.

Defining Quality Programs

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.

Preschool Teachers in Poverty

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.

California's Kindergarten Gap

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. The shift to full-length kindergarten is at last well underway in California, but in most other states this isn't even a conversation topic anymore.

As usual, a good shortcut for figuring out what constitutes good education is to look at what happens in wealthy communities: they send their kids to enriching preschools. When California gets around to investing in preschools for all children, the state's K-12 schools will be much better positioned to succeed.

Updated Feb 27, 2017 with new research about the lasting effects of early education.
Updated May 31, 2017 with fresh data about how California compares.
Updated Sep 29, 2017 with research about the Nurse-Family Partnership Program.
Extensively updated April 20, 2018

Review

Which ONE of the following statements is TRUE?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 8, 2018 at 1:17 pm
Scientific America reports the largest study to date of publicly funded early education program shows a major, sustained educational boost.

Read the report.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 7, 2017 at 10:48 am
A new report from RAND finds even more evidence of the importance of early learning.
"Investing Early: Taking Stock of Outcomes and Economic Returns from Early Childhood Programs "

"With this expanded evidence base, policymakers can be highly confident that well-designed and -implemented early childhood programs can improve the lives of children and their families."

https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1993.html
user avatar
Lisette October 3, 2017 at 4:23 pm
I definitely believe Preschool is important for our children to develop the social skills necessary as they embark in school the following year.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 19, 2017 at 3:02 pm
What choice should you make if you don't have enough money for universal pre-K? A 2017 study from Brookings suggests "that if limited resources rule out a universal program, then the best strategy may be to target pre-K services to disadvantaged communities rather than to disadvantaged children."

Weighing the benefits and costs of universal versus targeted pre-k programs
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 1, 2017 at 11:28 am
A new study on transitional kindergarten contains good news.
It found that TK Improves academic skills and engagement at kindergarten entry. More specifically, "The study found that TK gives students an advantage at kindergarten entry on all academic skills assessed. TK students outperformed comparison students on early literacy and language skills, including letter and word identification, phonological awareness, and expressive vocabulary, as well as mathematics skills such as problem solving and knowledge of mathematical concepts and symbols."

Read the report:

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 28, 2017 at 3:54 pm
California's school finance system creates a financial disincentive for school districts to offer a full Kindergarten program, so many schools still offer Kindergarteners a program of only three hours' duration. As EdSource documents, it's a money issue.
user avatar
rbrooks January 31, 2017 at 3:13 pm
There is a HUGE difference in the kids who have been in preschool and those who have not, thus making the Kinder teacher's job that much harder as she is almost teaching two different grade levels.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 27, 2016 at 3:57 pm
New research shows more benefits from investing in high quality early childhood education for at risk children: boosting long term upward mobility. You can find more from Edsource:
https://edsource.org/2016/early-childhood-education-pays-big-dividends-study-says/574210
Read the report: http://heckmanequation.org/content/resource/lifecycle-benefits-influential-early-childhood-program
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 28, 2016 at 12:28 pm
A 2016 study finds that school "readiness gaps" for new kindergarteners have narrowed modestly between high- and low-income students and between White and Hispanic students. Among the factors:
* Information campaigns about the importance of early learning
* Pre-school enrollment
* Publicly funder health insurance.

Read the article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2016/08/26/low-income-kindergartners-are-closing-the-achievement-gap-reversing-a-decades-old-trend/
Link to the full study: http://ero.sagepub.com/content/2/3/2332858416657343
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 20, 2016 at 9:41 am
Report on Early Childhood Learning:
High-Quality Early Learning Settings Depend on a High-Quality Workforce
Low Compensation Undermines Quality
"According to the National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE), 97 percent of center-based early childhood teaching staff are women – many of whom earn such low wages that they qualify for public benefits. (Center-based care includes school- based care, Head Start programs, and child care centers).
These low wages undermine their ability to provide for their own families, as well as their ability to provide children with the high-quality early learning experiences they need to excel in school and in life."
http://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/earlylearning/files/ece-low-compensation-undermines-quality-report-2016.pdf
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 12, 2016 at 5:02 pm
A national study comparing early learning throughout the nation finds that California is behind other states.
Read the the highlights in EdSource:
http://edsource.org/2016/california-lags-in-national-report-on-public-preschool-systems/564161?utm_source=May+13+digest+John&utm_campaign=Daily+email&utm_medium=email
Read the report: http://nieer.org/state-preschool-yearbooks
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 10, 2016 at 2:25 pm
New Efforts to Support Early Learning
There is a lot of support for expanding early learning. Read our blog to find out more...
/a-good-beginning/
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 10, 2016 at 2:22 pm
A Good Beginning–Growing Public Support for Early Education
A recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California indicates an overwhelming majority (68%) of Californians see pre-school as important to K-12 success.
Read more in our blog about efforts to increase support for early learning.
/a-good-beginning/
user avatar
Albert Stroberg May 1, 2016 at 7:09 pm
Parents. Why don't we teach the parents how to educate their kids?
Starting Day 1 , engage the kids in speech, conversation, activities, shared experiences. We know kids from parents with graduate degrees have thousands of more words by the start of school than HS grad parents and that gap is rarely closed. And after the first kid through the parent ed system, the second & others are "free"- requiring no further cost by the public sector. Pre School is too late.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 23, 2016 at 3:56 pm
More than 33,000 California 4 year olds from low-income families are not enrolled in any of the publicly-funded school readiness program for which they are eligible, according to new policy brief Unmet Need for Preschool Services in California: Statewide and Local Analysis by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).
AIR’s findings show that approximately 137,000 3 year olds are not enrolled. The report also includes a snapshot at the county and zip code level from 2014 showing where the unmet need for preschool is most acute.
The policy brief follows the introduction of the Quality Early Education and Development Act of 2016 – AB 2660 (McCarty), which aims to establish a plan and a timeline for California to provide quality preschool opportunities to all children from low-income families.
Find out more:
http://www.earlyedgecalifornia.org/news-media/press-releases/unmet-prek-need.html
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 23, 2016 at 3:05 pm
The Right Start Commission's new report, "Rebuilding the California Dream", recommends ways to address the challenges facing California's youngest kids.
Read it here:
https://www.commonsensemedia.org/kids-action/our-initiatives/the-right-start-commission?utm_source=April+2016+-+Report+Release+-+English&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=weekly
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 16, 2016 at 12:31 pm
What Makes a Good Early Childhood Education Program?
Ten Building Blocks that Matter
Drawing on a substantial body of research, the Learning Policy Institute recently published The Building Blocks of High-Quality Early Childhood Education Programs. This brief identifies 10 important elements, or building blocks, of high-quality early childhood education programs as indicated by research and professional standards.
Here is the link: http://learningpolicyinstitute.org/building-blocks-of-high-quality-ece-programs/
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 8, 2016 at 4:36 pm
Finally...early education is a hot education topic in Sacramento.
Catch this video seminar on Improving Quality in California's Early Childhood Education System: New Research and Implications for Policy.
http://edpolicyinca.org/events/improving-quality-californias-early-childhood-education-system-new-research-and-implications-policy
The conference was co-sponsored by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and Early Edge California
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 5, 2015 at 10:56 am
What is the impact of Transitional Kindergarten (TK)?
Here is some research from the American Institutes for Research (AIR):
Their study found that students who attended TK were significantly better able to identify letters and words at the start of kindergarten compared to their peers who did not attend. TK graduates also outperformed their peers on measures of mathematics knowledge and skills, including mathematics problem-solving skills such as counting objects and understanding measurement.
Link to full report:
http://www.air.org/resource/impact-californias-transitional-kindergarten-program-2013-14
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 13, 2015 at 12:59 pm
In October 2015 Gov. Brown vetoed a bill that would have set a date to expand access to preschool to all four-year-olds in low-income households. Context for the veto and response from Early Edge California: http://edsource.org/2015/governor-vetoes-bill-setting-timetable-for-expansion-of-preschool/88864 Additional context in reporting from Deepa Fernandez of KPCC
user avatar
aimeef23 April 27, 2015 at 4:18 pm
Our district offers Preppy-K classes (their term for Pre-K) at 5 of their elementary schools. You must be 5 to enroll and for those students it is like a 2 year kinder program. In working in multiple kinder classrooms I have noticed how the students who went through this Preppy-K class are much more ahead then the those students that did not. Preschool is an amazing starting block for children and should be a part of all children's education.
user avatar
Janet L. April 20, 2015 at 6:27 pm
8 of the 17 schools in our district have preschool on campus. The cost is significantly reduced (I believe in some cases free) for low-income families. If we had more affordable preschool options, our low-income families would be able to take advantage. My own children have attended one of the most affordable preschools in the area and even with a "six figure income" in our family, we struggle to afford it. Early education is essential to *preventing* the achievement gap we try so hard to close.
Another important factor though is educating parents on WHY early education is so important. Just telling the families that it's free or affordable is not necessarily going to motivate them to enroll.
user avatar
ms April 11, 2015 at 11:58 pm
Thought provoking article!
user avatar
Tara Massengill February 8, 2015 at 11:56 am
My husband is in the Navy, and I am a homemaker. When I went to register our son for pre-K, I was told that we make too much money for him to go to the state-funded pre-K here in San Diego. Our son has an IEP for speech therapy, but that didn't matter. California needs to make public pre-K more accessible. We made too much money to qualify for free pre-K, but not enough to pay for the wildly expensive private pre-K. Our daughter got to go to pre-K for free in Plano, Texas simply because her dad is an active duty service member.
user avatar
Paul Muench January 14, 2015 at 9:03 pm
Is what wealthy people do really such a good indicator of what's good for children? Maybe they are too busy to take care of their own children. And out of guilt they overspend on things that don't really help children. Is anything known about this?
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 December 4, 2014 at 12:10 pm
With greater discussion at the state and national level on the importance of early childhood education, a new report highlights how we pay those who work in this field.
"... (A)s was true in 1989, childcare workers still earn less than adults who take care of animals,and barely more than fast food cooks."
Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages: The Childhood Workforce 25 Years after the National Child Care Staffing Study
http://www.irle.berkeley.edu/cscce/2014/report-worthy-work-still-unlivable-wages/
user avatar
ted lempert April 5, 2011 at 4:13 pm
Increasing access to high-quality preschool is an essential element of education reform. We must also focus on early learning and development opportunities for California's infants and toddlers, as research shows gaps in learning as early as 9 months. Connecting children's early education experiences to their K-12 education is critical to supporting their long-term sucess. One example of how we can better align early learning and K-12 systems: utilizing data from kindergarten readiness observation assessments (KROA) to support children as they transition into kindergarten and move through the early elementary years.
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