You can never start too early.
That’s the message from an unusually intensive and longlasting education study that is following low-income children from birth into elementary school. It found that students who consistently participated in a high-quality, early-childhood program from infancy until they started elementary school performed on par with children their age nationally in early literacy and math by the end of 3rd grade. The children in the study also significantly outperformed children who had experienced more informal preschool or no early education.
"[Low-income] children who started as infants never demonstrated the achievement gap—they started off high and they kind of maintained their position at the national average,” said Diane Horm, the Kaiser Foundation-endowed chair of early childhood education at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa and director of university’s Early Childhood Education Institute, where the study began in 2010.
“I think it has everything to do with the starting at a very young age in a high-quality education program,” she said.
These longterm findings provide strong, new evidence that early education can have big and persistent benefits—if the programs are provided early and consistently.
But the study also comes as states struggle to regain momentum for universal preschool, much less earlier education, after years of pandemic interruptions.
According to the most recent data, from the National Institute for Early Education Research from 2022, less than a third of 4-year-olds and only 6 percent of 3-year-olds across 44 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam participated in preschool in 2021-22. That’s up from 2020-21, during widespread pandemic shutdowns, but still 8 percent less than enrollment before the pandemic. (NIEER does not track enrollment for younger students.)
For the Tulsa study, researchers randomly assigned 75 low-income infants and toddlers younger than 19 months to either attend the birth-to-4 Tulsa Educare program or not. (Children in the control group could still participate in other kinds of early education, though many did not.) The children in the Tulsa program had early academic and social-emotional instruction provided by teachers with at least a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education, as well as ongoing family, nutritional, and medical supports. The teacher expertise, in particular, is not the norm for most infant and young toddlers’ programs.
Horm and her colleagues tracked the academic and social-emotional development of the children through grade 3.
Following students this long is both rare and important. Other preschool studies have found initial benefits often “fade out” once children move into elementary school. By the end of 3rd grade, the Tulsa children who had participated in Educare through age 4 performed at or near the national average in oral comprehension, vocabulary, and math. Both English learners and native speakers in the program showed gains.
The different groups of students did not show significant differences in social-emotional development, though the parents of children in the Educare program did report consistently better behavior than the parents of students who had not participated.
The study builds on a separate 2022 study of more than 4,000 Tulsa students. That study found that early academic benefits of state-funded preschools—mostly run by school districts—did tend to fade out in early grades. However, children who participated in the state-funded preschools beginning at age 3 had better attendance and took more challenging courses in secondary school. (The Educare-Tulsa study did not look at attendance.)
Horm said the results suggest schools can benefit from better connections with children from the earliest ages. “If I were a school superintendent, it would be on my mind how to work with early-childhood programs in the community,” she said.
For example, she noted that most family- and center-based child care programs for infants and toddlers do not have resources for ongoing professional development for their caregivers or teachers.
“One thing that I’ve seen schools do, that’s kind of a no-cost thing, is invite community child-care providers to participate in the professional development offered by the school. That would be one step,” she said. “It’s just understanding that the quality of the experiences children have before they get to public school really do make a difference.”
Horm noted many early education programs do not include the youngest children and do not require all instructors to have a four-year degree in education.
“Our country has never fully enacted the Head Start/Early Head Start model, because it’s never been funded at a level to serve all of the kids, so many communities make the choice to do it part day or part year or part week to serve more kids,” Horm said. “And thus, I think, the dose gets watered down.”
“So I think that this study shows what a funded, comprehensive family-and-child development program can produce in terms of outcomes,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2023 edition of Education Week as Starting School in Infancy Can Help Low-Income Children Keep Up With Peers in Elementary School