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Lesson 4.1

Yes, Early Childhood Education Matters

America would be more equal, with this one change.

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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 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.

In California, the early learning gap is a big issue. 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.”

“California once led the nation in early childhood education. The currently large achievement gap is in part the result of a significant decline in the level of investment in its youngest children.”

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. These "home visiting" programs include a trained specialist who supports families with medical, parenting and family education to give children a strong start in life.

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. American families that can afford it send their kids to private preschool, but most kids are out of luck.

At a societal level, a wealth of evidence supports the need for 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. 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.

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 can appear to work exquisitely in small-scale tests, then turn out to work more modestly at scale.

But the cumulative evidence is awfully persuasive. For example, 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 University collects and publishes data annually to help understand the changes and differences in preschool across the nations. Like Florida, some states invest in near-universal public preschool for four year olds. Vermont and Washington, D.C. took the next step — they provide free public preschool to nearly all of their three year olds, too.

In California, however, most kids still get their first taste of school in kindergarten. Why? It’s a combination of the high cost of private programs and the low availability of public programs. In San Francisco, for example, the median monthly tuition for private day care and pre-school is $1,700 for in-home programs ($20,400 annually) and $1,600 for center-based programs ($19,200 annually). Yes, that's more than in-state tuition at UC Berkeley.

Only one in ten three year olds in California attends a public preschool program. The story is murkier for four year olds because of a program known as Transitional Kindergarten (TK). In short, TK adds another grade level to the K-12 sequence, but only for students born in the months of September through December. This program aims to bridge the academic and maturity gap between younger students and their peers before all four year olds begin traditional kindergarten. (The image below shows enrollment in public preschool, Federal Head Start, special education programs, and California TK in 2020.)

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.

Despite these advantages, California has historically struggled 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) 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 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 one year of public preschool in California (about $7,000 in 2018) is less than a twelfth the cost of one year of prison (investment in high-quality public preschool disrupts the preschool-to-prison pipeline, which in turn decreases the yearly expenses of prison anyways). In the big picture, expanding from 13 years of guaranteed basic education to 14 or 15 years may seem like a no-brainer, but progress toward this goal has been gradual.

Crawling to progress

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 early education in California. In 2018 Gavin Newsom campaigned for Governor with universal access to early education as a key pillar of his platform.

Newsom came close to fulfilling his promises. In 2019, he passed a budget that included a massive increase in funding for early childhood education. Unfortunately, the effort was cut short the following year by the spread of the coronavirus. The economic crisis slashed money in the state budget, and available education funding was focused on transitioning K-12 schools to distance learning. As schools resumed in-person learning, Newsom signed groundbreaking legislation in 2021 to improve access to preschool and achieve universal TK by 2025. As part of this California Comeback Plan, some of the $123.9 billion funds for public education will be allocated to ensure universal, high-quality preschool.

Extra-governmental advocacy groups remain dedicated to expanding early childhood education in the state. For instance, Children Now, a non-profit organization, has been a consistent advocate for early education in California. Its web site is a good source of information about support for children in a variety of capacities including early education.

Defining quality programs

Newsom's legislation stood on the shoulders of prior progress. California 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 this interactive map.

California's kindergarten gap

Outside California, virtually all kindergarten programs are “full day,” which means they last five to six hours. Kindergarten attendance is not mandatory in California, and in some schools here, it remains three to four hours in length. 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. If your school still operates an abbreviated kindergarten program, you should be concerned.

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. Now that California invests in preschool for all children, the state's K-12 schools will be much better positioned to succeed.

Updated February 2017, May 2017, September 2017, April 2018, November 2018, July 2020, December 2021.


Which ONE of the following statements is TRUE?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 13, 2023 at 12:21 pm
Writing for the LA Times, Jenny Gold examines the voucher system that pays for the care of more than 290,000 California kids in low-income families. An estimated 19% of child care workers live below the poverty line. Gold's reporting draws significantly on a report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 4, 2022 at 1:35 pm
Early Education/Kindergarten Facilities

The state 2022-23 Budget includes $100 million one-time General Fund with 2021-22 funds and $550 million in 2023-24 to support the California Preschool, Transitional Kindergarten and Full-Day Kindergarten Facilities Grant Program.

This program’s grant funds may be used to construct new school facilities or retrofit existing school facilities for the purpose of providing transitional kindergarten, full-day kindergarten, or preschool classrooms.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 3, 2022 at 9:08 pm
Transitional Kindergarten

The state 2022-23 Budget provides $614 million beginning in the 2022-23 school year to support the first year of expanded eligibility for transitional kindergarten, shifting from all children turning five-years-old between September 2 and December 2 to all children turning five-years-old between September 2 and February 2.

Additionally, the Budget provides $383 million to add one additional certificated or classified staff person to every transitional kindergarten class, reducing student-to-adult ratios to more closely align with the State Preschool Program.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 3, 2022 at 9:04 pm
The 2022-23 state Budget invests $475 million for students with disabilities, dual language learners, and childhood mental health

It also invests in Inclusive Early Education Expansion Program and State Preschool Family Fee Waivers.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 19, 2021 at 12:59 pm
Starting in 2022-23, funding will incrementally establish universal transitional kindergarten with full implementation by 2025-26.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 1, 2021 at 11:11 pm
Not all of California’s offer TK. The irony is that some of the gaps are in the state’s best-funded districts.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder May 3, 2021 at 10:33 am
California State PTA supports 2021 SB70 (Rubio) which would require kindergarten for all students. At present, there is no such requirement. Which means that the "all kids must go to school" enforcement process doesn't start until kids aren't showing up to first grade.
user avatar
DerekandRebeccasDad November 21, 2019 at 10:57 pm
Good lesson on reinforcing the importance of early childhood learning.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 2, 2019 at 9:07 pm
“If your school still operates an abbreviated kindergarten program, you should be concerned.”
I disagree, perhaps because I also do not agree with the definition of readiness. How are we to tell that readiness does not simply mean readiness to pass standardized tests? From a developmental standpoint, I do not believe that most kindergartners are ready for a full day program. We all want to improve schools and students’ abilities, but I fear that emotional readiness and the value of play are being lost in this race to satisfy standardized tests.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 17, 2019 at 12:11 pm
This is a sobering statement and one we should be ashamed to have to live with: "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."
user avatar
Caryn January 17, 2019 at 12:39 pm
I agree Susannah, it is sobering. The good news is, it's definitely not an endorsement of the status quo. The big point is that every child deserves a quality preschool education and California legislators (and voters!) have the power to make that happen. Which is why readers like you are incredibly important and have the ability to advocate for real change.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 17, 2019 at 12:07 pm
The ounce of prevention approach (also good for health coverage!) seems such a no-brainer but obviously in so many arenas, people including legislators and educators are short-sighted. As I was reading the snowball analogy for the cumulative effects of learning (an effective analogy I think), I wondered how the seeming loss of knowledge at the end of a long summer fits into this; I suspect the seeming loss is really loss in immediate memory as opposed to more deeply buried accumulated knowledge.
user avatar
Caryn January 17, 2019 at 12:23 pm
Hi Susannah, thanks for your comment. This is a great question you'll see addressed in Lesson 4.6. Spoiler alert--summer learning loss disproportionally affects low income children and the effects are cumulative.
user avatar
Jeff Camp August 16, 2018 at 12:25 pm
The education commission of the states (ECS) collected data about kindergarten policies in each state. California is not alone in having weak policies to provide kids in poverty with a decent start to their learning.
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."
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:
Read the report:
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:
Link to the full study:
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."
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:
Read the report:
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...
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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: 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
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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