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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.

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.

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

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.

Nurse-Family Partnership programs begin even before birth, helping new mothers prepare. 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 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.)

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, 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.

In California, preschool is mainly for those who can pay

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.

California has failed many times to expand preschool

Even an investment that has been shown to pay society back sevenfold in the long run requires an outlay in the short run. California has not come close to making preschool universal -- in fact, it is not even a leading state when it comes to making preschool available to children in families of high need. 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:

  • 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?

In national rankings of early education, California has improved its standing, but is nowhere near the top. ChildrenNow, an advocacy organization, estimates that less than a third of children age 3 and 4 are enrolled in quality public preschool programs.

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 $5,000 in 2013) 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’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:

  • More than 33,000 California 4 year olds from low-income families are not enrolled in any of the publicly-funded school readiness programs for which they are eligible.
  • Approximately 137,000 3 year olds are not enrolled.

There are signs of a growing consensus to expand public preschool in California.

  • 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.

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.

Copyright RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA. RAND Preschool Study 2008. Reprinted with permission. Copyright RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA. RAND Preschool Study 2008. Reprinted with permission. Full Infographic Here from the Center for American Progress.

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.

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. 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.

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.


Which ONE of the following statements is TRUE?

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Questions & Comments

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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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