Early Childhood What the Research Says

Early Education Pays Off. A New Study Shows How

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 29, 2022 4 min read
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The benefits of early-childhood education can take a decade or more to come into focus, but a new study in the journal Child Development suggests preschool may help prepare students for better academic engagement in high school.

Researchers at the nonprofit ChildTrends, Georgetown University, and the University of Wisconsin tracked more than 4,000 children who started kindergarten in Tulsa, Okla., public schools in 2006. Some 44 percent of the students participated in the Sooner State’s universal state-funded preschools, which include partnerships between school districts and early-learning organizations. Another 14 percent of the students had participated in federal Head Start programs, and the rest did not participate in either program.

Early benefits of preschool participation on students’ math and reading scores mostly faded away by the time students reached high school—a common fade-out problem seen for early education. But Amadon and her colleagues found that students who had participated in Tulsa’s state-funded preschool programs were more likely to attend school regularly and take more-challenging courses than those who participated in Head Start or did not receive early-childhood education.

“The fact that students were attending school more days, the fact that they were enrolling in different types of courses indicates some sort of different engagement in and commitment to their education and their schooling,” said Sara Amadon, a senior research scientist for the nonprofit ChildTrends and lead author of the study. “It didn’t translate to GPA or test scores, but, you know, we also know that GPA and test scores are just one part of the puzzle of persistence and engagement through high school. Those behavioral indicators are also really powerful predictors of graduation.”

The results come as the Biden administration continues to press for universal, publicly funded preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Earlier this month, President Joe Biden signed a $1.5 trillion spending bill for fiscal 2022 that included more than $584 million in additional support for child care and early learning programs, including Head Start, Early Head Start, and the Child Care and Development Block Grants. However, the new study suggests state-supported programs may have more-stable benefits than Head Start in the long term.

Overall, students showed no significant differences in cumulative grade point averages or scores on ACT or SAT college placement exams, regardless of whether or not they participated in preschool. There were two exceptions: Native American students performed better in English/language arts on college placement exams, and Hispanic students had higher GPAs, if they attended preschool than if they had not.

Moreover, compared with children who had not attended early education, alumni of Tulsa’s universal preschools challenged themselves more academically: They were significantly more likely to take an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate class, and less likely to fail a high school course in general, than students who had not attended preschool. (By contrast, there was no significant difference academically for students who had participated in Head Start or no early education.)

Better attendance habits later on for preschool participants

In part, this could be because students who attended Tulsa’s universal preschools developed better attendance habits early—and kept them throughout their academic careers.

Students who had attended Tulsa’s preschools were significantly less likely to be chronically absent in high school—defined as missing 10 percent of school days or more—than their classmates who had not attended preschool. On average, preschool alumni missed 1.5 fewer days a year than those who hadn’t attended.

On average, students who had attended Head Start programs instead were also slightly less likely to miss school, but showed no other academic or engagement advantages.

Students of color who had attended preschool were particularly likely to be more engaged in school later on. For example, Hispanic students who had attended preschool attended 2.8 more school days on average in high school compared with Hispanic students who had not attended preschool or who had attended Head Start.

Amadon said the study also highlights the need for educators and school leaders to plan for additional supports for students entering school during the pandemic, who may have had less access to early-childhood education.

“When we think about the upcoming pre-K classes, [education leaders should] make sure they are giving that extra push to ensure that all students are accessing pre-K ... doing a little more outreach, especially to the neighborhoods and communities that you know have families that were hard hit by the pandemic or struggled to find child care” and early education, she said.

The study is part of an ongoing research project tracking the long-term effects of early-childhood education. The next study in the project will focus on differences in college-going among these students.

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