Which school do you want to support?
Some children fall behind in school. But many start behind, especially kids from less-advantaged families.
There are no magic answers in education, but considerable evidence suggests that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Achievement gaps start early. Why not head them off before they happen?
Ed100 Chapter Four explores on the role of time in education. This lesson, the first of the chapter, focuses on the role of timing — specifically preschool and kindergarten education. California struggled for decades to get serious about early learning. There are reasons for optimism.
In the early days of public education in America, early education wasn't a top priority for many reasons, starting with the fact that nearly half of children died before age five. As recently as 1920, the childhood mortality rate approached 20%. The institutions of public education took shape at a time when most children were cared for by their family until they had the ability to walk themselves to school.
Today, the vast majority of children live, protected by vaccines against childhood diseases. In most developed countries and US states, about 996 out of every thousand children live to at least age five. It makes sense for early childhood to be about learning, not just survival.
Children are born learners, and those with the opportunity to attend a good preschool begin their life with significant advantages. According to one Stanford study, a 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. K-12 educators can’t do much about this — for them, California’s large achievement gaps come to them as a pre-existing condition.
To head off gaps from the start, it helps to prepare new parents for their role as their child's first teacher. Nurse-Family Partnership programs begin even before birth, working with new mothers. Nurse home visiting programs support families with medical, parenting and family education to give children a strong start.
Persistent gaps in academic achievement show up prominently in standardized tests. Researchers have demonstrated that these patterns can be spotted very early. According to a high-profile study by the Getting Down to Facts II research effort (GDTFII), California’s achievement gap, one of the biggest in the nation, is not due to failures in K-12 education. Rather, it exists because of “the disproportionate achievement gap when children enter kindergarten.”
The first systematic movement for early childhood education began in Germany, where it was called kindergarten. The term stuck. Elizabeth Peabody is generally credited for establishing America’s first public kindergarten in Boston in the 1860’s. She was inspired by a private German school in Wisconsin led by Margarethe Schurz. As mandatory public education took root throughout the U.S. states in the 1910’s, many included a kindergarten program as an optional extension of elementary school. (See Ed100 Lesson 1.7 for more about the history of public education.)
Kindergarten in California generally refers to education for five-year-old children. Though not mandatory, it is provided for free, and an analysis by the California Kindergarten Association estimated that about 93-97% of children enroll in it, whether in a public or private school. The most recent credible estimate (2017) suggests that about 70% of California's kindergarten students attend a full-day program, about 5.6 hours in duration. The other 30% attend a part-day program, about 3.5 hours in duration, shorter than most pre-school programs. Bills to make kindergarten mandatory for all children at age five and full-length were vetoed in 2022.
Every dollar invested in high-quality early learning programs can save $7 later on.
A wealth of evidence supports the value of universal early education. 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. Students provided early education are more likely to graduate from high school and college. They are more likely to attend school consistently and less likely to have to repeat a grade of school. They are better socialized in school and less apt to fail.
In addition to the educational and social benefits for children, early education programs also free up time for parents to earn, learn, or make other choices.
Education and care for children are not mentioned in the Constitution, so they are a function of the states. Some states invest more in the education and well-being of young children, and others invest less.
The federal government provides some support for early education and child care providers, partly through the Head Start program. Federal funds for early education often are structured as block grants that help coax states to take action. Funding for federal grants must be passed by Congress, which can be fickle. In a 2021 report on the economics of child care, the US Treasury reported on the costs, burdens, and benefits of child care and early child education. (The report was issued in the context of the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better plan.)
Early education has received sporadic federal funding in times of crisis. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Congress provided significant funding for early education on a temporary basis, with bipartisan support. In 2023, this consensus was insufficient to overcome partisan filibusters over the national debt ceiling, leaving thousands of early education providers underfunded.
Lacking clear federal leadership, states vary widely in their implementation of public education for children prior to kindergarten:
California has struggled for a policy consensus about the best approach to providing more supervised time for children. Is it better to fund more time for early learning or more after-school program time? In California, this choice was personified by two successive governors. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who served 2003-2011, won the office after successfully campaigning for an initiative that funded after-school programs. Under his successor, Jerry Brown, the state pivoted toward early learning. During Brown's administration, California took significant steps toward making education for four-year-olds part of the state's public education system under the name Transitional Kindergarten (TK).
Gavin Newsom, who succeeded Brown, committed to expand and accelerate the rollout of TK:
“California is making a big commitment, and that’s making Transitional Kindergarten accessible and free to all 4 year old kids. That means every child can learn in a nurturing environment with small class sizes to give our young learners the attention they deserve. And when we’re finished with this expansion, California will have the single largest free preschool program in the country, serving nearly 400,000 children.”
— Governor Gavin Newsom, Jan 4, 2023
To implement a TK program safely and effectively requires staffing, facilities, transportation arrangements, community confidence and leadership. It doesn't just happen. To make transitional kindergarten universally available in California will probably take years, with gaps in availabity and quality. Inevitably, some will complain about the expense of adding a year to the school system. It's useful to keep the context in mind: extending the 13-year K-12 system to a 14th year is an increase of less than 8%.
When fully implemented, it is reasonable to expect that TK will bring California's education system a bit closer to matching the best practices of the world's developed nations, which are way ahead in this area.
Virtually all developed nations provide universal preschool for 4 year olds. Most provide it for 3 year olds, too.
The short answer: virtually all of them.
Because the benefits of universal early education are massive, most of the world’s developed economies provide universal public education starting by age three. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): “Once children reach the age of 3, early childhood education and care is the norm in the vast majority of OECD countries, with an average enrollment rate of 74%.”
Of course not. Preschool belongs on the long list of things-that-are-not-magic. Educating kids is hard, and there are always ways to mess it up in implementation.
But the cumulative evidence is awfully persuasive. For example, it would make sense for the academic benefits of preschool to kind of wash out over time, making it hard to detect by, say, seventh grade. It isn't. More than a generation's worth of skeptical research on early education suggests that learning is cumulative. Like a snowball on a roll, knowledge and skills tend to grow faster than they melt.
Early education isn't magic — but investing in it is good policy. Failing to provide universal early education is harmful, and tends to have unequal impacts.
The quality of early learning programs depends on the support and preparation of the people who work in them. But early childhood care workers are among the lowest-paid workforce in the country. Nearly half of child care workers are in households that participate in at least one public assistance program, such as Medicaid or CalFresh (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…” California is not an exception.
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