There is a good deal of buzz these days over universal preschool. President Barack Obama has made a proposal, Mayor Bill Peduto would like Pittsburgh to be a model for it, and various statewide and local organizations are advocating for it.
At the same time, opponents of publicly supported preschool for low-income children have long argued — and continue to do so — that preschool, especially Head Start, does not work. They say gains made by children during preschool fade away in time and there are no lasting benefits for children.
Some of these claims formerly appeared to be true — at least in part and as far as they went. But now, a collection of some of America’s best child-development scientists, under the auspices of the Society for Research in Child Development, have reviewed the entire five decades of research on the effects of preschool for 4- and 5-year-olds, including the most recent evaluations of Head Start and new publicly funded programs. The jury is in.
A systematic analysis of 84 preschool programs demonstrated that on average children gained about a third of a year of additional learning in language, reading and math skills, and the publicly funded preschool programs in Tulsa and Boston produced gains of a half to a full year of additional learning in reading and math.
New research shows that learning improvements occur for middle-class as well as low-income children, although low-income children gain more. Further, dual-language learners gain as much or more than native speakers, and children with mild to moderate special needs advance as much as typically developing children.
Also, a second year of preschool produces additional benefits, although not as large as the first year. This may not be surprising, because the preschool learning experience is often the same from year to year instead of progressively building on what was taught in the first year.
But do these learning benefits last?
These gains are predominately for test scores, and the differences in average scores between children with and without preschool often converge over one to three years after preschool. Importantly, the preschool children do not lose what they learned; children without preschool catch up when they go to school.
But even in the same studies in which preschool and non-preschool children have similar test scores after a few years, children who had preschool benefit in other important ways for years thereafter. Studies of small intensive preschools, larger programs and Head Start show preschool children are more likely to graduate from high school, complete more years of education, earn more money, have fewer teenage pregnancies and are less likely to become involved inThese benefits have substantial economic consequences. The research now extends past the early small but long-term Perry Preschool study to include large-scale public programs such as the Chicago Child-Parent Centers and Tulsa’s program. These studies show that from $3 to $7 of benefits are reaped for every dollar invested in the preschool programs. This is a greater return on investment than most educational interventions, such as reducing class size, and the benefits grow the older the children get.
Of course, the quality of the preschool program matters, but even studies of programs not selected for their quality reveal that on average children show learning gains. Unfortunately, the average quality level of preschool programs across the country, including Head Start, barely approaches the middle of the scale.
That said, the newer research provides guidelines to improving the quality of preschool programs. First, of course, preschool education is not simply babysitting, so teachers need to be well trained in early education.
The right structural characteristics — things that are most easily put into regulations, such as the number of children per each teacher, group size and facilities — are necessary for well-trained teachers to exercise their skills one-on-one with children, but they alone are not sufficient. One needs both qualified teachers and a supportive classroom environment.
A major element of effective programs is the quality of the teacher-child interaction. This includes back-and-forth conversation, responding to the child’s lead and asking the child questions, including open-ended questions that do not have only one correct answer. This kind of interaction is most effectively encouraged by showing teachers positive examples, mentoring them in the classroom and videotaping teachers and then discussing their interactions with children.
Further, structured curricula designed to promote specific basic language, literacy and numerical skills have been shown to be effective. Such approaches are now being combined into more comprehensive and integrated preschool curricula.
Nearly five decades of research documents that quality preschool can be a very worthwhile public investment, especially but not exclusively for low-income children.
Agreed, we need to bolster the training of early education teachers, raise the quality of many existing programs with mentoring and create an effective, integrated, two-year curricula. Also, “universal” ultimately will probably refer to access, not necessarily government financial support, for all children.
But we basically know what needs to be done and how to do it, and the long-term benefits would contribute to a better workforce, improved economy, less delinquency and crime, and better-quality recruits for the military. Now we need the political will to do it for all children.
Robert B. McCall is a professor of psychology and co-director of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development (firstname.lastname@example.org). The report can be found at fcd-us.org/resources/evidence-base-preschool.