Earlier this fall, New America hosted a panel, “Too Much Evidence to Ignore: New Findings on the Impact of Quality Preschool at Scale.” The panel discussion offered an opportunity for leading researchers and policy analysts to discuss a new report, “Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education.”
The report is an analysis of 84 preschool programs throughout the country where evaluations have concluded that children benefit across language, reading, math, and social-emotional skills. Key findings include:
- The number of children in a classroom, the ratio of teachers to students, and staff qualifications all help to increase the likelihood of more children entering school ready to succeed – however, children benefit most when teachers engage in stimulating interactions that support learning and are emotionally supportive.
- Access to preschool benefits children from middle income families as well as low income families (although children from low income families benefit more).
- Children across various racial/ethnic groups benefit from preschool as do children who are dual language learners and children of immigrants.
- Working with parents can augment the effects of preschool on children’s development, but only when modeling positive interactions or providing opportunities for practice with feedback.
- High quality early childhood education programs are among the most cost-effective educational interventions and benefit society as a whole.
What does this all mean? Decades of research has been conducted on preschool programs. What we know is that quality preschool can make a difference for children’s school readiness. There has been much discussion about preschool teacher qualifications. But, the research shows that preschool teacher qualifications alone do not ensure greater gains for children. Coaching and mentoring that provide teachers with support to better implement curricula and interact with and engage children, leads to better child outcomes – higher quality programs that lead to children learning.
Preschool teachers interacting with children foster higher order thinking. Warm, responsive teacher-child relationships characterized by back and forth conversations (“serve and return”) not only help children learn in the short-term but also predict the persistence of gains into the school years. Curricula matters, however, evaluations found that intensive professional development – coaching at least twice a month where expert teachers provide feedback and support for in-classroom practice, makes a difference in improving classroom quality.
According to the National Institute on Early Education Research (NIEER), currently, about 42 percent of 4 year-olds attend publicly-funded preschool (28 percent attend public preschool programs, 11 percent attend Head Start, and 3 percent attend special education preschool programs). We know early education works. We know it is cost-effective. It’s time to ensure that all 4 year-old children have access to quality preschool – regardless of family income and regardless of geography.