Yes, Public Preschool is a Smart Investment

March 22, 2013

child with blockNote: This blog post is in response to the question posed by The New York Times in its Room for Debate forum: “Is Public Preschool a Smart Investment?”.

Early education and care programs have two goals — child care so parents can work or go to school and education so children learn and grow optimally.  Unfortunately, much of what is called child care in the United States is what others would call “child minding.”  Ensuring that children are safe, warm, and fed is not enough to support their healthy development, which also requires well-trained, adequately paid teachers who receive coaching and supervision plus sufficiently teacher-child ratios. This helps ensure caregivers provide children with educational content and play experiences that include language, math and science as well as attending to their social, emotional, and physical development, which are equally important. In a high-quality early childhood education and care setting, children learn language, how letters and books work, and about numbers, shapes, and dimensions. But they also learn how to test a theory, concentrate, self-regulate, develop attention skills, get along with others, and more.  The end result is they start kindergarten better prepared to learn and live full lives.

The evidence for pre-K is substantial and far beyond the few studies commonly mentioned, such as the Perry Preschool Program (which skeptics criticize for being old and small).  To date, there are summaries of 123 studies in the U.S. and about a third more elsewhere in the world that demonstrate the effectiveness of high-quality pre-K programs.  From all the studies out there one concludes that early educational intervention can have substantive short- and long-term effects on cognition and social-emotional development, as well as on school progress, antisocial behavior, earnings, welfare participation, and even crime.  A multiplicity of programs across various social and economic contexts, including large public programs, have been shown to be effective.  Among the recent evidence are long-term studies from Michigan and the Abbott preschool program in New Jersey.  So how can we choose not invest in it when the evidence also shows that for every $1 spent we get far greater returns?

The President’s pre-K proposal would help states provide high-quality pre-K for low- and middle-income families, which is crucial considering that children of lower income groups start kindergarten more than a year behind in language and math than their upper income peers.  And this gap is very resistant to later efforts to close it.  Recognizing that parents want quality learning experiences for even the youngest children, the President also proposed partnerships between child care and Early Head Start, a program for at-risk children under age 3 with a track record of success.  Improving quality in child care for younger children, particularly the most disadvantaged, while providing expanded pre-K to 4-year-olds is too important to be an either/or choice. We can do more for children of all ages and the President proposes to do that, but ensuring that every child has access to quality education at least by age 4 is an attainable goal right now while pursuing that broader agenda.  State leaders have figured out that pre-K is a good choice for families and children in their states and politically viable as a bipartisan policy –  last year, 39 states offered state-funded pre-K programs, and enrollment – all voluntary – has nearly doubled in a decade.  Even cities have started to push for pre-K programs, such as the recent efforts in San Antonio by Mayor Julián Castro.  Nevertheless, finances are difficult for many families, cities and states.  A little federal help will go a long way toward ensuring that all families, especially low- and middle-income ones, can have access to high-quality education for their preschoolers.

– Milagros Nores, Associate Director of Research, NIEER

Pre-K Goes to Washington

March 22, 2013

President Obama launched early childhood education into the national spotlight in February when in his State of the Union address he proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” Since then, the early education field has been debating best practices, funding models, and making sure the mainstream media accurately presents the compelling research case for pre-K. The White House has been largely mum on plan details, though its fact sheet, the President’s education speech in Georgia, and recent remarks from White House advisor Roberto Rodriguez have offered some clues. While the President’s plan is more of an outline than a detailed proposal, it does focus on a few key components:

  • A plan to implement comprehensive data and assessment systems,
  • Small class sizes and low staff to child ratios,
  • Qualified teachers for all preschool classrooms, and
  • Well-trained teachers who are paid comparably to K-12 staff.

The proposal has not gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill, where several early learning bills have been introduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to improve the quality of and access to early childhood education for 4-year-olds. Funds would be channeled through state-designated agencies to subgrantees who would provide the actual services.

Three recently introduced bills call for a closer reading:

  • The Prepare All Kids Act (S. 502) introduced by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA);
  • The Ready to Learn Act (S.322) introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and co-sponsored by Al Franken (D-MN), Mark Begich (D-AK), Mazie Hirono (D-HI); and
  • The Providing Resources Early for Kids Act of 2013, or PRE-K Act, introduced by Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) (S.519) cosponsored by Mark Begich (D-AK), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Al Franken (D-MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Patty Murray (D-WA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Companion legislation was introduced in the House (H.R. 1041) by Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and cosponsored by Representative Allyson Schwartz (D-PA).

The plans agree on several points, such as requiring comprehensive early learning standards (defined by the National Education Goals Panel as physical well-being/motor development, social/emotional development, approaches toward learning, language development, and cognition/general knowledge) as well as requiring states to use these federal funds to “supplement, not supplant” existing state funds for early learning. Each plan also addresses those key aspects of the White House proposal in slightly different ways:


Prepare All Kids (S. 502)

Ready to Learn Act (S. 322)

Providing Resources Early for Kids Act of 2013 (PRE-K Act) (S.519/H.R. 1041)

Class Size



Nationally established “best practice”

Staff-Child Ratio

1:10 ratio

1:10 ratio

Nationally established “best practice”

Teacher Credentials

Defined as having a BA with specialization in ECE or early childhood development; or  teacher is working toward degree

within 6 years of beginning employment as teacher in a provider assisted under this program

Within 2 years of grant, each classroom must have teacher with BA in ECE or specialized training in early childhood development

Teacher holds AA or higher in early childhood or related field; Plan to require state-funded pre-K program teachers to hold a BA (in ECE or related) within 5 years of receiving funds

Early Learning Standards




Provision for Private Provider Inclusions

35% of subgrantees must be CBOs

25% of subgrants to CBOs

Funds must be made available to range of programs, including LEAs and community-based providers

Fed/State Share



Non-federal matching funds at least 30% of federal grant funds for “Qualified States,” 50% for “Selected States”


Cannot lead to rewards or sanctions for individual children, teachers, programs, or schools; Single assessment cannot be used as sole method for assessing effectiveness

Program’s curriculum must use “valid and reliable multiple assessments for the purpose of improving instruction”

Funds in act may not be used for assessments that provide rewards or sanctions for teachers or students (no high stakes)

The Prepare All Kids Act also calls for a 15 percent set aside of funding for programs for children ages 0 to 3, while the PRE-K Act calls for 10 percent set aside for quality improvement in programs for children these ages. While media attention of President Obama’s early childhood plan has largely centered on the components offering preschool to 4-year-olds, children ages 0 to 3 were addressed through Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership programs.

These requirements seem like good news for most programs with state-funded pre-K programs. As indicated in NIEER’s annual State Preschool Yearbook, from the 2001-2002 to 2010-2011 school year, state-funded pre-K programs made particular progress in meeting the NIEER quality standards in the areas of class size and ratio, lead teacher requirements, and early learning standards.

benchmarks over time

Clearly, the percent of programs requiring teachers to have a bachelor’s degree has lagged considerably with only 57 percent of programs meeting this standard. However, provisions in each of the three congressional bills give programs some time to raise teacher credentialing to this level. Twenty-four programs already meet all of the requirements of these proposals regarding program standards as indicated in NIEER’s latest State Preschool Yearbook. Though these would not be the sole qualifying factors for receiving federal funds, it appears that almost 50 percent of pre-K programs are already on the right track from Congress’ point of view.

Pre-K has also found itself a more modest place in the Continuum of Learning Act of 2013 (H.R.791) as introduced by Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) and Don Young (R-AK), with Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Jim McDermott (D-WA), and Allyson Schwartz (D-PA) joining as co-sponsors after the bill was introduced. While the bill was introduced shortly after the President’s State of the Union pre-K proposal, it does not outline a new pre-K program but rather builds early learning more explicitly into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Continuum of Learning Act focuses primarily on improving early learning guidelines; encouraging local education agencies (LEAs) to utilize school improvement funds to provide early education programs; and promote professional development, especially through providing joint training between early education and elementary teachers.

Introducing bills in committee still leaves early learning far from the President’s desk, but the number of plans focusing on high-quality early childhood education at the federal level represents a heartening commitment to the future of kids.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

The Perry Preschool Study and Head Start

March 8, 2013

This guest post is an open letter in response to The Wall Street Journal editorial “Head Start for All.”

Larry SchweinhartYour Review & Outlook “Head Start for All” (Feb. 25) makes several incorrect claims about the HighScope Perry Preschool Study. As director of the study, I’d like to set the record straight.

Your review claims that the Perry study and the Abecedarian study are the sole evidence that preschool works. But they are just the best known of a large number of studies finding that preschool works, that is, has its intended effects on children. Along with the city-wide Chicago Child-Parent Centers study, these studies go a big step further by finding strong long-term effects and return on investment.

In the presence of large returns on investment, the initial cost should be a secondary consideration. That said, the Perry Preschool cost per child was well below the $16,000 per child per year or more you said it cost. In current dollars, it cost $11,107 per child per year, about the same as the cost per K-12 student in the U.S. The Perry Preschool program is not that hard to replicate—and have its return on investment widely realized. We simply need to insist on reasonable program standards – qualified teachers using a proven curriculum, partnership with parents, and regular evaluation. Unfortunately, far too many existing preschool programs do not meet these standards.

The disappointing results of the national Head Start Impact Study are hardly a reason to abandon the program when other studies, like the Perry Preschool Study, show its enormous potential. The Head Start Impact Study does suggest a course correction, bringing the resources of Head Start more fully to bear on contributing to the development of young children living in poverty. Such improvements are achievable and, with them, widespread improvements in educational achievement, economic productivity, and reduced costs to taxpayers.

– Larry Schweinhart, President, HighScope Educational Research Foundation

Fulfilling the Promise of Universal Pre-K

March 7, 2013

teacher and child at sandboxFew government investments pay the dividends of high-quality pre-kindergarten education, which has been found to return as much as $10 for every dollar invested, from higher earnings, lower crime, and reduced government costs later in life. Yet, despite powerful evidence that it works, states have a checkered history of implementing quality pre-K. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has now wisely recommended increasing the state’s investment in preschool education and has proposed new support for full-day pre-K. His challenge will be to avoid the pitfalls of other states and learn from their checkered past.

Across the nation, pre-K for all, or even most, has been achieved sporadically. Only eight states – Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – provide pre-K to more than half of their 4-year-olds. New York trails these states, enrolling only 45 percent at age 4. New York lags behind such states as Florida and Texas not just on pre-K but on achievement at fourth grade, the first point at which we can compare achievement across the states.

New York has professed to offer universal pre-K since 1997, originally with a timetable to serve all children by 2002; follow-through has been the state’s downfall. As the governor fills in the details of his plan, he will have an opportunity to put New York back on track to fulfilling that promise. Success will require strong leadership and an actionable plan. In designing that plan, he should heed three important lessons from other states’ experiences.

First, New York must set a realistic but firm deadline for achieving the goal of pre-K for all with a series of milestones along the way. The state should consider following the example of West Virginia, which specified a number of “soft” mid-course deadlines for rolling out access and quality standards over a decade and is now confidently approaching the finish line of universal access in the fall of 2013. As generations of preschoolers have learned from the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race.

Second, quality must not be sacrificed in pursuit of quantity. Deadlines should be set based on the state’s capacity to build and maintain pre-K at a high standard. It has proven far easier to build quality from the start than to raise quality after a program has been brought to scale. Across the Hudson, New Jersey provides pre-K to fewer children, but it has transformed preschools in its poorest urban communities into a high-quality system of pre-K that attracts visitors from around the globe to see world-class early education.  New York should put into place a continuous quality improvement system to ensure that the quality of teaching and learning increases – not just the numbers enrolled.

Third, to improve quality and access slowly but surely, an uncapped stable statewide funding formula is needed that enables every local community to move forward as fast as local conditions permit. States like New York that annually set a fixed expenditure for pre-K waste funds in years when few are prepared to move forward, and limit growth when many are prepared to advance. The simplest and most effective approach is to add pre-K into the school funding formula for K-12. States that have done this are the only ones to significantly increase access to pre-K during the Great Recession.

New York has come a long way from a decade ago when it offered preschool education to only about a quarter of its 4-year-olds, but it is nowhere near its goal of quality pre-K for all. It can achieve that goal by heeding these lessons. Without learning from them, New York will continue to shut thousands of deserving children out of pre-K and continue to pay the price of this unkept promise in higher rates of school failure and crime – and lower incomes – for years to come.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

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