Expanding Access to Quality Pre-K is Sound Public Policy

December 16, 2013

In 2013, preschool education received more attention in the media and public policy circles than it has for some time, in part because of a series of high profile proposals to expand access to quality pre-K. The scientific basis for these pre-K proposals is impressive. This new working paper brings to bear the full weight of the evidence to address the following questions:

A statistical summary of studies since 1960 demonstrates that effects persist and provides evidence about what works (intentional teaching with small groups).

What are the estimated effects of state and local pre-K programs in more recent years?

We provide estimated effect sizes for school readiness at K and for later achievement from studies conducted over the past two decades. Effects vary across programs, but are overwhelmingly positive. Long-term achievement gains tend to be smaller, but still can be substantial.

Is Head Start ineffective?

A national randomized trial of children who attended Head Start in 2002 found modest initial effects and failed to detect lasting impacts. That study underestimates effects by design, its greatest limitation; nevertheless, the results were disappointing. Since then Head Start has been subject to reforms including a Bush Administration emphasis on improving literacy and an increase in the percentage of teachers with college degrees. Data collected in 2003, 2006, and 2009 reveal large increases in the size of Head Start children’s language and literacy gains between 2003 and 2009.

Can government improve the quality of public preschool education?

Head Start provides one example, as described above. New Jersey provides another. It raised standards and implemented a continuous improvement system that transformed early care and education for all 3- and 4-year-olds in 31 cities from poor/mediocre to good/excellent over eight years. The latest follow up on the New Jersey children finds large gains in achievement and school success through grade 5 associated with pre-K attendance.

If states expand pre-K with temporary federal matching funds, what happens to state education budgets when that federal money is no longer available?

Looking ahead to 2030 using Census projections for numbers of children, NIEER projects that all but 1 state would spend less on education from pre-K through grade 12 under federal proposals that incentivize states to raise pre-K quality standards, offer a full school day, and serve all children under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Idaho is the only state that might have to pay a little more, because it has relatively low costs for school failure today.

Budgetary Impact of Providing Quality Pre-K to All Children Under 200% FPL by State, By 2030

Given the answers to these questions it seems self-evident that local, state, and federal governments should expand access to quality pre-K and other enhancements of early education, especially for children in low-income families. In our new working paper, we explore what the research says about the impacts and importance of high-quality pre-K and provide estimates of how much each state could save on education pre-K to grade 12 under provisions of the proposed federal pre-K plans. Read the full details in our new paper.

– W. Steven Barnett, NIEER Director


Don’t STEM the Tide of Curiosity

December 13, 2013

The future economic viability of our country relies on a STEM-literate citizenry and workforce, but we aren’t educating our children to be science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) literate.  Research evidence is mounting for the importance of math and science school readiness for long-term achievement in these areas and in reading; yet, we leave behind so many children from low-resource communities.  Children who are as curious, able, and eager to learn as their middle class peers arrive at school behind in math and science knowledge and skills.  These gaps are likely to widen during the school years.

Child in lab goggles

The author’s son embraces his inner scientist, with proper safety precautions.
Used with permission of Kimberly Brenneman.

We have to change the equation here.  It’s not just an economic imperative; it’s a moral one.  Our challenge is to provide children with the kinds of home and preschool experiences that are good bets to improve school readiness in math and science.  Last week I returned from my fourth professional meeting in as many weeks.  Despite logging thousands of miles on United and Amtrak; spending nearly as many nights at the Marriott as in my own bed; and nearly being buried under the resulting blizzard of receipts and reimbursement forms, I am more enthusiastic and energetic about the field than I’ve been in years…maybe ever. At every one of those meetings I met, spoke to, learned from, and collaborated with people who share my passion for early childhood science, technology, engineering, and math education and are prepared to accept the challenge of improving early STEM readiness.

It is particularly satisfying to see the variety of groups interested in this issue. The Heising-Simons Foundation convened a group of researchers and funders to discuss ways to improve family engagement in children’s early math learning.  At the National Governor’s Association meeting, policymakers and researchers brainstormed ways to bring early math to the forefront of education policy.  Colleagues and I gave presentations to hundreds of educators at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, each of whom wanted to improve their professional skills so that they could better support young children as science learners. At the National Science Foundation’s December 3 STEM Smart meeting, focused on early education, 300 researchers, teachers, education administrators, policymakers, funders, and business people came together to further our knowledge about early childhood STEM learning and teaching.   The waiting list had 150 more names on it. I even tried my hand at Twitter for the first time so I could participate in a TweetChat on improving STEM outreach in early childhood education, organized by PreschoolNation. How can I not be energized by this shared will and desire to do the hard work of figuring out how to harness our knowledge, enthusiasm, and unique perspectives to make progress?

It won’t be easy. It’s going to require a great deal of will, a great deal of working together, and a great deal of funding to meet the challenge of providing solid supports for STEM learning for every child.  Given the economics of early education, high quality programs in preschool are a good bet to yield a high return on investment, so that these young kids stay in the STEM pipeline and get the high paying STEM jobs.  And that’s important.  The military, the tech industry, medicine, engineering, and many other fields require a highly skilled workforce.  But before we get to that, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of preschool children who are not only eager to learn, but also eager to learn science, technology, engineering, and math.  I know I don’t want to lose even one of them because we adults–who had the opportunity and responsibility to improve science education–didn’t work together or try hard enough.  After the last few weeks, I know I am far from alone in my determination to take up the challenge.

– Kimberly Brenneman, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER


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