Expanding Access to Quality Pre-K is Sound Public Policy

by W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D.
National Institute for Early Education Research
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
December 2013

Executive Summary

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 proposed expansions of quality pre-K is impressive. This paper brings to bear the full weight of the evidence to address the following questions:

• What does all the evidence say about effective preschool education and long-term cognitive benefits? 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 later achievement for studies from the last couple of 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 reform, including a Bush Administration emphasis on improving literacy and more teachers with college degrees. Data collected in 2003, 2006 and 2009 show 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 in 31 cities from bad to good over eight years. The latest follow up on the New Jersey children finds large gains in achievement and school success through grade 5.

• If states expand pre-K with temporary federal matching funds, what happens to state education budgets when that federal money is not available? NIEER projects that in 2030 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 grade repetition and special education costs.

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.

download the full report at National Institute for Early Education Research


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