The early years of childhood are critical for development. Many factors influence these early years including family income, home environment, and parents’ education. But more and more, policymakers are turning their eyes to preschool as a way to help children get off to a strong start.
42 states and the District of Columbia currently have publicly-funded preschool programs. With the hope of improving children’s school readiness, later academic outcomes, and future employment opportunities, these states have decided that early childhood education is a worthwhile investment. But the debate over to what extent these programs are effective and how to achieve these long-term goals still continues.
Recently, the Brookings Institution and Duke University released a consensus statement featuring areas of agreement from early childhood education researchers. So what do these leading social scientists agree on?
While all children can benefit from a quality preschool experience, researchers agree that economically disadvantaged children and dual language learners gain the most benefits. Preschools can provide children with an environment rich in language and stimulation, which many disadvantaged children may not receive at home. Preschool also helps dual language learners improve their English language skills and, in turn, their overall academic skills.
But researchers caution this does not mean policymakers should focus solely on disadvantaged children when designing preschool programs. All children benefit from being in a classroom with peers from diverse language and economic backgrounds. Not only can children strengthen their own language skills this way, they can also learn more socially inclusive attitudes.
Unfortunately not every preschool program is effective in boosting children’s development. One of the key elements of a successful program is “serve-and-return” interactions between teachers and children, as well as between classmates. This back-and-forth communication helps children organize and focus their attention, helps promote peer cooperation, and improves learning.
What kind of curricula encourage this back-and-forth interaction? The Brookings and Duke researchers point to curricula that focuses on a given skill area – like literacy or math – rather than a more “global” method of addressing all areas of development at the same time. They also emphasize that teachers need professional development and coaching, and that children benefit from organized, positive, and engaging classrooms.
Critics of preschool have long pointed out that studies suggest early educational gains fade out over time. The Brookings and Duke researchers state that early gains can only be maintained if elementary school classroom experiences sustain and amplify progress.
They suggest the best way to do this is to stop viewing preschool in isolation and start looking at it as part of a child’s overall education. This way, elementary school teachers will have a better idea of what children have already learned, and what gaps remain to be covered.
Studies of children who attended state-funded preschools show that they are more prepared for kindergarten than their peers who did not. Of course, being ready for kindergarten or not doesn’t determine if your child will get into an Ivy League school. But school readiness is an important part of a child’s adjustment to elementary school. Not only does it mean having the language, literacy, and numeracy skills needed to succeed, but also the willingness to follow expected behavior and have the social-emotional capacity to thrive.
Preschool’s impact on school readiness presents a strong argument in its favor. For policymakers encouraging their states to invest more in preschool, the long-term benefits of preschool are one of the key selling points. However, the Brookings and Duke researchers warn that many of the studies that found long-term benefits use weak methods. They note that the evidence is from small-scale studies and is promising, but more research is needed.
The authors of the report emphasize that we need to continue the research into what makes a quality preschool program effective. This is especially true if, for instance, policymakers want to scale up a small program to a state level.
It’s clear that early childhood is a critical time for young children’s development. Researchers know that quality preschool can be an important way to help children reach their full developmental potential. The groundwork is promising. Researchers now need to figure out what exactly it is about a good preschool program that makes it so successful at improving children’s lives.