by Hirokazu Yoshikawa. 

Universal preschool education at 4 should be adopted as a cost-effective way to improve outcomes for all and to reduce childhood inequalities worldwide. Evidence shows large-scale, public preschool programs lead to better education, health, economic and social outcomes for children, families and countries.

Universal, public education should begin with preschool at age 4. Five decades of high-quality research into early childhood education overwhelmingly support such a policy shift. Evidence from neuroscience, medicine, developmental psychology and economics demonstrates that large-scale, public preschool programs lead to better education, health, economic and social outcomes for children, families and countries. This is particularly true for disadvantaged children.  Evidence from high, middle- and low-income countries indicates that the economic benefits typically outweigh the costs of providing these educational opportunities, by between three and eight to one.  New evidence from U.S. studies in Tulsa and Boston shows that high-quality preschool implemented at large scale is even cost-effective for middle-income groups.

Differences in academic performance, between those who received preschool education and those who did not, can gradually “fade out” later in students’ school careers. However, major benefits from early education can survive long-term. Even after test-score differences decline to zero, people who received high-quality early education do better in terms of high-school graduation, years of education completed, earnings, reduced crime and teen pregnancy.  “Fade-out” may also be diminished by improving the quality of primary education, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Universal provision of public education at 4 is a question not only of cost effectiveness, but also of equity: in many countries the well-off already enjoy access to such education, while it is denied to many of the less well-off. For example, in the United States, 90 percent of families in the top 20 percent of income distribution are already purchasing preschool education for their children. In contrast, among families in the lowest 40 percent of income distribution, fewer than 60 percent of children are enrolled in preschool education. This is not an isolated situation. In Chile, nearly half of the children who don’t attend child care centers or preschools belong to households in the first income quintile.  So access is determined not only by a family’s resources, but also by where children live.

Too many children start school inadequately prepared to succeed. Gaps in cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional skills due to unequal opportunities become evident well before children enter kindergarten. The resulting achievement gap widens in the US as children progress through school, despite strong efforts at remediation. The long-term consequences include high rates of school failure, grade repetition, inappropriate special education placements, and dropout; involvement in risky behaviors and crime; and even a higher risk of adult chronic diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. These problems are not limited to the poor: many children who fail a grade and drop out are from middle-income families. The costs of remediation, social dependency, poor health, and lost productivity are very high for individuals and for governments.

The quality of teaching and support for teachers are vital for achieving the benefits of preschool education. In large-scale studies in the US and in countries such as Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, etc. only a minority of public preschool programs provided excellent quality, and levels of instructional support were especially low. The evidence continues to grow that interactions with teachers who combine stimulation and support are the foundation for positive effects on children. Such interactions build children’s higher-order thinking skills as well as their knowledge of specific content (such as early numeracy, math and language skills), and at the same time are warm, responsive and elicit elaborated conversation. It is important to focus on structural elements of quality, such as group size, teacher-student ratio, and teacher qualifications, because they help increase the likelihood of such interactions, but structural elements alone do not ensure that these stimulating and supportive interactions will occur.

Teaching can be an isolating activity. The science of adult learning shows us that we learn best through direct observation, support and feedback. Evidence suggests that coaching and mentoring on how to implement content-rich and engaging curricula, based on observation in the classroom, can yield important benefits for children by raising the quality of their interactions with teachers.

Beyond coaching and mentoring in support of instruction and curricula, what other factors can strengthen the boost that children get from preschool education? There is evidence that a second year of preschool shows additional benefits to children. However, we need more work to consider how a second year can build on children’s growth in a first year of preschool to boost learning and development even more. In addition, comprehensive support services for families can strengthen outcomes, but the most recent research indicates that such services should focus on evidence-based practices. For example, a recent meta-analytic review of a large number of studies indicates that the positive effects of preschool education can be augmented when a parenting education component is added, but only when this component gives parents the opportunity to see modeling of positive interactions or to practice such interactions. Such effects do not occur when programs simply give parents information.

Individual children’s growth and development are the basis for a country’s development. Given the strong scientific evidence base, supporting quality in universal preschool education is key to sustainable and productive citizens and societies.

The original version of this post was published at the Child and Family Blog.

Hirokazu Yoshikawa is the Courtney Sale Ross Professor of Globalization and Education, and a University Professor at New York University. 

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