A study published this week has found that a high-quality early childhood program can reduce the number of children who are diagnosed with a variety of learning disorders by the third grade.
Conducted by Clara G. Muschkin, Helen F. Ladd and Kenneth A. Dodge of Duke University, the study is expected to play a part in reducing the burden that special education services place on municipal budgets.
Researchers looked at two early childhood initiatives in North Carolina and how they affected the probability that children would need to be placed in special education by the time they finished the third grade. The authors focused on a preschool program that serves four-year-children from at-risk families referred to as More At Four, and another program that offers child, family and health services to children from birth to age five, called Smart Start. Around 871,000 children born between 1988 and 2000 were observed during this study. The children all entered the third grade between 1995 and 2010.
Children from the More at Four program, which is now referred to as NC Pre-K, were found to be 32% less likely to be in special education by the third grade in comparison to their peers who were not enrolled in a preschool program.
Children enrolled in the Smart Start program were 10% less likely to be in special education by the end of the third grade.
Both programs together reduced the likelihood of needing special education services by 39%, according to the researchers. This discovery could mean a significant increase in savings, as special education costs in the US are almost twice as much as regular classroom costs, writes Lyndsey Layton for The Washington Post.
“It shows a level of benefit not only in academic terms but also financially, because special education services are so expensive,” Muschkin said. “This gives policy makers useful evidence that investments in early childhood education are a source of significant cost savings for the state.”
Additional smaller studies have suggested that children who participate in high-quality preschool programs show lifelong benefits, including better jobs, higher wages, and a reduced probability of being in the criminal justice system or needing social services.
However, a large study performed in 2013 looking at almost 5,000 children enrolled in the federal Head Start program serving low-income children from birth to age five, discovered that any literacy progress made in those children faded by the third grade, causing many critics to believe Obama’s universal preschool proposal may not be as cost-effective as it is made out to be.
The Duke study has now suggested that not only is a high-quality preschool program cost effective, and could greatly benefit children who may otherwise need special education services, it could also benefit other children as well.
Children who were also enrolled in the two preschool programs studied benefited because they are high-quality programs. “The state funding goes to the slots in the classroom, but because the quality has to be high, the other children in the classroom also benefitted, even though they didn’t qualify for More at Four,” said Muschkin.