The benefits of high quality pre-kindergarten programs go beyond kindergarten readiness— they can help kids succeed in school and in life
Babies are born with a surplus of neural connections, but ultimately it’s up to nurture (more than nature) to wire the brain for future success. Positive and supportive learning experiences can have a positive impact on IQ and future learning ability, so it’s important for all children to benefit from them early in life.
Aside from the impact on cognitive development and school readiness, scientific studies show that well-designed high quality pre-k programs for three- and four-year-olds can improve performance on academic achievement tests in the early elementary grades.
A 2010 report from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that teenagers who were enrolled in high quality programs as young children did slightly better in school than those given low-quality care or no care outside the home.
In 2009, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) determined that children in New Mexico who attended pre-kindergarten scored higher on assessments of early language, math and literacy skills than children who did not. These skills included addition and subtraction, telling time, recognizing letters and demonstrating familiarity with words and concepts found in books.
Social and Emotional Readiness
It has also been found that middle school students who were enrolled in high quality pre-k programs as young children achieve more in middle school, require less special education and are more likely to graduate from high school. According to the police officers and district attorneys of the national Fight Crime, Invest in Kids study, participation in high quality pre-kindergarten can eventually increase high school graduation rates by as much as 44 percent.
All in all, participation in high quality pre-k programs has been shown to result in kids who score higher on tests, attain more advanced levels of education and grow up to become more productive adults with fewer social problems. Not only have high quality pre-k programs proven to increase parent-child interactions and parental involvement in schools, they have been linked to lower rates of future incarceration. In fact, many states use the number of illiterate students in fourth grade as a way to project the number of prison beds they’ll need in the future.
Challenges We Face
Not all pre-k programs produce the same lasting positive effects, however. Quality and length of day definitely matter. According to Science and other internationally regarded journals, low-income students— like those currently eligible for pre-kindergarten in Texas— show the greatest gains in the short- and long-terms from participation in high quality full-day pre-k programs.
Of the 200,000 four-year-olds in Texas who are eligible for public school pre-k, only a third are enrolled in full-day programs, while two-thirds are enrolled in half-day programs. Nearly half of the children from low-income communities enter the first grade up to two years behind their peers. Unfortunately, these children will most likely never catch up, and are three to four times more likely to eventually drop out of school. This isn’t just their problem— the achievement gap in U.S. schools has cost the country at least $300 billion in the last 10 years in social services, remedial education and reduced tax revenue resulting from low income potential, among other things.
Growing awareness of the importance of early childhood education has resulted in more high quality pre-k initiatives. Oklahoma’s high quality pre-k program is considered a great success. Another promising program is in Laredo, Texas. In 2002, that city was ranked last in literacy, prompting State Senator Judith Zaffirini to author a bill focused on achieving school readiness for young children. As a result, Laredo has seen an increase in the number of children entering Gifted and Talented programs, an increase in literacy in both Spanish and English and a dramatic increase in 3rd grade students passing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test— from 51% to 72% in just four years.
Investing in the Future
According to economists Arthur J. Rolnick and Rob Grunewald of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, a key ingredient of economic growth is the quality of the workforce, and they believe current investments in early childhood education boost workforce productivity in 20 years.
A study by the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M found that, for every dollar spent on high quality pre-kindergarten, Texas communities gain a return of $3.50. (Other studies estimate even higher returns on investment, showing annual rates of return of 7 percent to 18 percent, adjusted for inflation.) Most of those returns flow back into the community in the form of reduced crime, reduced welfare and remedial education costs.
What can be done
The Texas Legislature should continue to invest in high quality pre-kindergarten. School districts need substantial resources to provide full-day, high quality pre-kindergarten. Much in the same manner that Texas expanded kindergarten from half to full-day, decisions about expanding pre-kindergarten must be made at the local school district level. Texas must balance the needs and desires of both parents and districts with the latest research, accountability, and fiscal responsibility.
Texas legislators will be faced with difficult funding decisions during the 82ndLegislature, but given the individual and social benefits of high quality pre-k, they should protect its funding. Early childhood education increases the likelihood of students graduating from high school, going to college, and obtaining higher-paying jobs. It’s clear that when it comes to full-day pre-k, the benefits outweigh the cost.