Public Pre-K Programs: What the Research Says

Public Pre K Programs 400x264Most states and many major cities are expanding their public preschool programs. Not everyone agrees the cost justifies the benefit.

January 26, 2020

If you’re searching for an issue that has true bipartisan support, look no further than preschool. In a 2017 survey by the First Five Years Fund, 89 percent of people said we should make early childhood education more affordable for working families, including 82 percent of Republicans and 97 percent of Democrats. Elected officials from both major parties have pushed to expand early childhood education in their states, more than doubling the number of children enrolled in publicly funded programs between 2002 and 2018. All told, more than a million and a half children in 44 states, D.C., and Guam attended a publicly funded preschool program in 2018.

In terms of size and quality, pre-k programs run the gamut. Georgia, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, for example, enroll more than half of their children in public pre-k and score relatively well on quality metrics. Ohio, Kansas, and Arizona, on the other hand, enroll only a tiny percentage of their children and run low-quality programs. A few states, like Idaho and New Hampshire, have no programs at all.

Although government funding for early childhood education has strong bipartisan support, some people have questioned whether the benefits are worth the cost — in 2018, the investment by states alone was $8.1 billion. Is preschool a critical stepping stone for early learners, or a costly program without proven long-term benefits?

A Smart Investment
Perhaps the most widely cited experiment in early childhood education is the Perry Preschool Project, which studied low-income three- and four-year-olds from the Michigan town of Ypsilanti, outside Detroit. In the early 1960s, the Perry researchers set out to find whether a high-quality preschool program could raise the IQ scores of its students. Some of the results were underwhelming. For example, while the children’s IQ scores did increase initially, they soon evened out with their peers.

Some of the other findings, however, were groundbreaking. Led by economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman, the researchers found that Perry students had stronger long-term outcomes than their peers. They were more likely to graduate high school and less likely to be arrested. They reported better physical health and even had higher earnings.

Since then, evidence is strong that preschool has a positive impact. In a 2017 report, some of the nation’s top experts concluded that children who attend public preschool programs are better prepared for kindergarten than those who do not. Their research found that economically disadvantaged children made the most gains, and showed significant benefits for children learning English as a second language.

Other experts say that high-quality preschool boosts high school graduation rates, correlates to higher enrollment in honors courses, and lowers crime. As for whether pre-k is worth the money, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth estimates that every dollar we spend on early childhood education will return $8.90 by 2050.

Diminishing Returns
A different and disheartening study also made headlines in 2017: preschool may prepare children for kindergarten, but the positive effects wear off quickly. Four researchers looked at data from 67 high-quality programs, most of which focused on children from low-income families. They found that the effects of preschool fell by half within a year and again by half two years later.

Author and former elementary school teacher Elliot Haspel argues that early childhood education is less important than support for families at home. “Children are making over a million neural connections per second in the earliest months in life, and there is now a scientific consensus that brain architecture is being built long, long before a child enters pre-K,” Haspel writes. “This means that pre-K, as an early childhood policy, is pointing at the wrong part of the developmental arc; it’s adding a second floor before ensuring the foundation is sturdy. What determines the strength of a child’s neurological structures is a dizzying interplay of environmental factors centered on the home.” In other words, children can do well when families are doing well.

Still, most experts agree that early childhood education is beneficial, particularly for poor children and English language learners. The authors of the 2017 study that found rapidly fading benefits from pre-k believe that preschool does appear to have a positive impact, but that poverty and lackluster K-12 schools keep children from harnessing the academic benefits in the long term. “When children grow up in challenging home environments and move through mediocre classrooms,” they write in an op-ed for The Washington Post, “it’s not surprising that they are unable to translate early gains in basic math and reading skills into mastery of more advanced skills such as fractions, algebra or critical reading.”

Preschool may give children a leg up, but if we want to sustain that progress, economic inequality and the K-12 education system need our attention, too.

Learn More

Don’t Give Up: The chair of the Development and Research in Early Math Education (DREME) Network says it makes no sense to evaluate preschool in a vacuum, ignoring the many other realities children face — via DREME

Tight Funding and Thin Research: Some experts say that universal pre-k isn’t the best use of limited funding, while others argue that the jury is still out on whether the benefits are that great — via The Atlantic

Model Students: The Learning Policy Institute zeroed in on four states with high-quality pre-k programs. Here’s what they’re doing right — via NPR

International Perspective: An in-depth study looks to Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, England, Australia, and South Korea for lessons on improving early childhood education in the U.S. — via Hechinger Report

Fuzzy Math: Two analysts re-crunch federal data and say that far more children in the U.S. attend preschool than other sources report — via The Brookings Institution
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This article originally appeared in the January 26, 2020 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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