A new brief from the National Education Policy Center is arguing that providing universal access to high-quality preschool education would be one of the most effective ways to improve academic outcomes for American students. Although nationwide, three-quarters of 4-year-olds and more than half of 3-year-olds attend some kind of preschool, when adjusted for inflation, the amount spent by states on creating and funding options for preschoolers works out to be – on a per-child basis – much less than it was merely a decade ago.
Investment in good preschools has long been considered to be fiscally prudent, as the states that put the money into these kinds of programs tend to recoup it via a more educated populace. The investment also produces other benefits, not all of them economic; a review of studies on the subject by the RAND Corporation pegged the return on investment in preschool education to be a staggering $17.01 for each dollar spent.
In terms of academic effects, preschool programs show large and immediate pay-offs. High-quality, intensive preschool education for at least two years can, by itself, close as much as half the achievement gap. Overall, the initial size of these effects averages a one half standard deviation higher than control groups. This magnitude is the same as improving a score from the 30th percentile to the 50th percentile. These initial effects fade somewhat over time but nevertheless persist into adulthood, registering permanent effects in the 0.1 to 0.2 standard deviation range
Not all investment pays the same dividends. In order to produce good results, the report lays out certain criteria that the state-sponsored preschool programs must meet in order to be considered high-quality. The schools must maintain small small teacher-to-student ratios, with ideal classrooms holding no more than 20 kids.
The quality of the instructors is also paramount. The best programs ensure that only the most highly-qualified teachers actually front classrooms. The report also says that preschools should work with the community in order to provide their students access to social and health services. And in addition to meeting the needs of their students, schools should look to also meet the needs of their parents, such as providing "wrap-around childcare" for parents with unusual or long work hours.
The report also looks at what kind of a physical environment is most conducive to learning. Preschools that provide their students with ample indoor as well as outdoor space have a leg up on those that don't. Similarly, schools should be looking to create a good balance between having students engage in teacher-directed activities and allowing them to engage with their peers or even spend time in individual pursuits.
The report also profiles several states that have taken these recommendations to heart when redesigning their own preschool programs.
The highly successful Abecederian program in North Carolina enrolled children beginning at four months of age. Researchers found sustained academic effect sizes at 0.33 standard deviations at ages 15 and 21, higher graduation rates, higher college attendance rates and higher employment. However, positive effects of this size are not universally reported and attention to program quality factors is of paramount importance.