Invest in programs that stimulate children’s learning and development
Congress will soon determine the extent of the nation’s investment in its youngest citizens. After years of marginal spending, President Biden’s plan for universal kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, childcare subsidies, and increased salaries for teachers and caregivers recognizes that the early years of l childhood are of unique importance to public welfare and should be funded as such. Investing in children’s early years pays off both for their success and that of their parents in life, as well as for their contribution to the economy and society – a multi-generational return.
The helping hand at school entry
By studying a diverse cohort of 2,500 children through preschool and early elementary school, we examined the benefits of enrolling in early education programs, whether at ages 3, 4, or 5 years. The results are clear: Enrollment contributes to students’ learning and development the year they enroll, and they enter the following year with significantly better results than their peers without these prior experiences. We call this effect the “start-to-school boost”.
Children receive this boost at the age of 3, 4 or 5 when they experience a program organized around educational and developmental principles. The boost is not trivial: it fills half of the skills gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their richer peers or between minority and majority students. The boost is most obvious for early language and communication skills, reading and math, and for cognitive skills such as working memory and inhibitory control, all of which are essential for success.
The boost is most evident when children with early childhood education experience start a new school year well ahead of their peers who did not have this opportunity the previous year. For example, students who participated in a preschool program at age 3 were ahead of their peers at age 4 at the start of kindergarten. The increase at age 3, 4, or 5 was similar across a range of racial and ethnic groups – meaning that early education benefited all children – with suggestions that English learners acquired at a later date. even greater degree.
The skills enhanced by early education do not fade. Although the differences between children with and without previous early educational experiences diminish, this is entirely because children “catch up” when they are given the impulse to come to school for the first time. The boost is more likely to be sustained when followed by another year or more of high quality learning environments.
Preschool education programs stimulate learning through the experiences they provide in the classroom. We have observed in curricula and identified in classrooms that impulses can then support learning by stimulating and sustaining teacher-student interactions and relationships and stimulating learning-oriented activities taught in sensitive and sensitive ways. responsive. These “ingredients” benefit children of all racial, ethnic, linguistic and income groups. And if kids are lucky enough to land in classrooms like these year after year, their learning is sustained. Unfortunately, few children are so lucky.
Finally, we found that the emotional well-being of teachers is important for their ability to deliver these elements in their classrooms.
What do these results mean for the ongoing political debates?
First, preschool education programs are beneficial. Yet there are gaps in their availability. Full funding of universal access for 3 and 4 year olds would be a game changer. It’s time to welcome all 3 and 4 year olds to school—a public system of appropriate, stimulating and caring educational opportunities.
Access to an effective early education opportunity is too often a matter of luck. It’s time to make it a guarantee.
Second, public school systems should be held accountable for the quality and benefits of public education for 3 and 4 year olds. Legislation should ensure high standards for the curriculum, the classroom environment and the preparation and training of teachers. Legislation should require public school divisions and state agencies to manage the education of children aged 3 to 8 as a single integrated system.
Third, we need to invest in the adults who are on the staff of early learning and child care programs. Those (almost all women) who work with preschool children are teachers. Investments that increase and stabilize the wages and professional stature of educators are a necessary component of a national human capital strategy.
For many of our youngest, most vulnerable and marginalized citizens and their families, early childhood education can be a lifeline, just as it is for the most advantaged children. Access to an effective early education opportunity is too often a matter of luck. It’s time to make it a guarantee.