Large-Scale, High-Quality Public Preschool Pays Off

Date Posted: 

October 21, 2013

Margaret Burchinal, senior scientist at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, and an interdisciplinary team of fellow early childhood experts have authored a seminal research brief showing the effectiveness of large-scale public preschool programs.

“Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education” reviews rigorous evidence on why early skills matter, which children benefit from preschool, the short- and long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s school readiness and life outcomes, the importance of program quality, and the costs versus benefits of preschool education. 

“Scientific evidence on the impacts of early childhood education has progressed well beyond exclusive reliance on the evaluations of the Perry Preschool and FPG’s Abecedarian programs,” according to Dr. Hiro Yoshikawa, a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School and lead author of the brief. “More recent evidence tells us a great deal about what works in early education and how early education might be improved.”

“The recent evidence includes evaluations of city-wide public preschool programs such as those in Tulsa and Boston,” according to co-author Dr. Deborah A. Phillips, professor of psychology at Georgetown University. “Evaluations of these programs tell us that preschool programs implemented at scale can be high quality, can benefit children from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and can reduce disparities.” 

The current science on early childhood education shows:

1. Large-scale public preschool programs that are of high quality can have substantial impacts on children’s early learning. For example, at-scale preschool systems in Tulsa and Boston have produced gains of between half and a full year of additional learning in reading and math.

2. Quality preschool education is a profitable investment. Benefit-cost estimates based on older, intensive interventions, such as the Perry Preschool Program, as well as contemporary, large-scale public preschool programs, such as the Chicago Child-Parent Centers and Tulsa’s preschool program, range from three to seven dollars saved for every dollar spent.

3. The most important aspect of quality in preschool education is stimulating and supportive interactions between teachers and children. Children benefit most when teachers engage in interactions that support learning and at the same time are emotionally supportive. Importantly, in existing large-scale studies, only a minority of preschool programs are observed to provide excellent quality and levels of instructional support are especially low.

4. A key pathway to quality is supporting teachers in their implementation of instructional approaches through coaching or mentoring. The evidence indicates that coaching or mentoring teachers on how to implement content-rich and engaging curricula can increase stimulating and supportive interactions as well as boost children’s skills.

5. Quality preschool education can benefit middle-class children as well as disadvantaged children. The evidence is clear that middle-class children can benefit substantially, and that benefits outweigh the costs for children from middle-income as well as those from low-income families. However, children from low-income families benefit more and therefore universal preschool can reduce disparities in skills at school entry.

6. Long-term benefits occur despite convergence of test scores. As children from low-income families in preschool evaluation studies are followed into elementary school, differences between those who participated in preschool and those who did not on tests of academic achievement are reduced. However, evidence from both small-scale, intensive interventions and Head Start suggest that despite this convergence on test scores, there are long-term effects on important societal outcomes such as years of education completed, earnings, and reduced crime and teen pregnancy.

The research brief was funded by the Foundation for Child Development and produced in collaboration with the Society for Research in Child Development.

FPG grants permission to publish this story in part or in its entirety.

Photo credit: courtesy of UNC's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute

Full research brief

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