Local & State Voices

The value of high quality preschool

The University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute has released findings that further enforce the value of high-quality preschool. In a recent report, the FPG said North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten program for at-risk 4-year-olds is having crucial impact on “dual-language learners.”

“On the whole, children in NC Pre-K exceed normal expectations for the rate of developmental growth, both while in the program and afterward in kindergarten,” said Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, director of FPG’s National Pre-K and Early Learning Evaluation Center and lead author of the report. “But one of our key conclusions was that those children who enter the pre-k program with lower levels of English proficiency make gains at an even greater rate than the other students.”

That’s an important finding in a state where Latino children are the fastest growing segment of students in the public schools.

As important is the institute’s finding that NC Pre-K, designed at its 2001 inception to be a high-quality program, is paying off for all groups. “Children are progressing at an even greater rate during their participation in NC Pre-K than expected for normal developmental growth,” Peisner-Feinberg said. “Our research found growth in language and literacy skills, math skills, general knowledge, and social skills.”

Further, the research shows that children enrolled in the state’s pre-k program continued to make gains even after leaving it. At the end of third grade, children from low-income families who had attended pre-k had higher reading and math scores on the N.C. end-of-grade (EOG) tests than similar children who had not attended the state’s program, she said

N.C. lawmakers, who’ve pushed to reduce and limit participation in the state’s high-quality preschool, would do well to consider these findings. They reinforce what other studies continue to show nationwide about the value of preschool.

They might also want to consider what I’ve learned over the last couple of years doing research on strategies to tackle the growing problem of young people who have become disengaged or adrift. I talked about some of that research this week at a luncheon for The Learning Collaborative, an impressive and inspiring, tuition-free, high-quality preschool in Charlotte.

Across the country, high-quality preschool is rightly being highlighted as one of the crucial interventions to help troubled and at-risk young people.

Studies that have followed children through their adult lives document improved success in college, higher incomes and lower incarceration rates. Others show preschool participants more likely to graduate from high school, own their own homes and have longer marriages.

Some studies have suggested that test score gains for students diminish by third grade. But most don't dispute other more long-lasting and to me more important benefits such as self-sufficiency, higher education attainment, and staying out of trouble.

Research shows that other countries are paying much more attention to preschool’s benefits and making deeper investments. A 2012 Economist study ranked the United States 24th in the world in early childhood education, and falling behind other developed countries.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also found last year that the United States had about 69 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled in some type of early education including government, religious and other private programs. That compared to more than 95 percent in France, Spain and even Mexico. Japan enrolls nearly all its 4-year-olds in preschool; the United Kingdom enrolls 97 percent.

Crucially most of these other countries provide government support for preschool. When only programs with government support are included, the U.S. trails other countries even more with just 28 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled and just 4 percent of 3-year-olds. Many U.S. families can’t afford the cost of preschool.

Countries like China and Russia are fast outpacing our commitment to high-quality preschool,. By 2020, China is expected to provide preschool access to 40 million children, including three years of preschool for 70 percent of all children and two years of preschool for 80 percent.

Russia is already ahead on GDP spending on preschool, devoting 0.9 percent of GDP as opposed to our 0.4 percent. And over the decade that Russia has boosted preschool spending, it has leapfrogged over the U.S. on 4th grade reading. In 2001, Russia trailed the U.S. by 14 points on reading; now it is ahead of us by 10 points. Russia now enrolls 75 percent of its students in government supported preschool.

The importance of high-quality preschool is clear. Other countries, our competitors in the global marketplace, have already discovered that and are making the needed investments. We need to do the same here.