Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children

Get ready for the fall. It’s going to be a busy public policy season for early education and care. It’s also going to be a great time for advocates to remind policymakers that the evidence for high-quality early education is strong and growing.

Among the highlights of the coming months, five Massachusetts communities will be expanding pre-K enrollment with the help of a federal Preschool Expansion Grant.

In addition, the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education will hold a hearing for all bills related to early education and care on Wednesday, September 16, 2015.

Several Pre-K bills will be presented, including one filed by Representative Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley) and Senator Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett) called “An Act Ensuring High Quality Pre-Kindergarten Education.”

As we’ve blogged, “The bill calls on Massachusetts to follow New Jersey by providing ‘access to high-quality pre-kindergarten programs for 3-and 4-year-olds living in underperforming school districts.’”

To help make the case for increased investments in early learning, it’s always helpful to draw on existing research. A terrific summary of recent research can be found in the 2013 policy brief, “Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education.” The brief was published by the Society for Research in Child Development and the Foundation for Child Development.

The brief “provides a non-partisan, thorough, and up-to-date review of the current science and evidence base on early childhood education,” drawing on the work of an “interdisciplinary group of early childhood experts.”

What the Research Says

The research findings on early education are deep and rich, according to one of the policy brief’s authors, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, a psychology professor at New York University, who said in a press release: “Scientific evidence on the impacts of early childhood education has progressed well beyond exclusive reliance on the evaluations of the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs.”

Deborah Phillips, professor of psychology at Georgetown University and a co-author of the brief said, “The recent evidence includes evaluations of city-wide public preschool programs such as those in Tulsa and Boston.”

She adds: “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 evaluation of the Boston preschool program was conducted by Yoshikawa and Christina Weiland of the University of Michigan and was recently published in the journal Child Development,” the press release explains.

The “Investing in Our Future” policy brief was discussed at an event called “Too Much Evidence to Ignore: New Findings on the Impact of Quality Preschool at Scale,” which is available on YouTube.

A slide presentation of Yoshikawa’s work is posted here.


The Evidence-based Power of Preschool Programs

“Robust evidence suggests that a year or two of center-based ECE for three- and four-year-olds, provided in a developmentally appropriate program, will improve children’s early language, literacy, and mathematics skills when measured at the end of the program or soon after,” the brief says. “These findings have been replicated across dozens of rigorous studies of early education programs, including small demonstration programs and evaluations of large public programs such as Head Start and some state Pre-K programs.”

Preschool’s effects on socio-emotional development “are not as clear-cut as those on cognitive and achievement outcomes. Far fewer evaluation studies of general preschool (that is, preschool without a specific behavior focused component) have included measures of these outcomes.”

However: “An evaluation of the Tulsa prekindergarten program found that prekindergarten attendees had lower levels of timidity and higher levels of attentiveness, suggesting greater engagement in the classroom, than was the case for other students who neither attended prekindergarten nor Head Start.”

On the question of what’s better: one year of preschool or two, the brief says, “A second year of preschool shows additional benefits. The available studies, which focus on disadvantaged children, show further benefits from a second year of preschool. However, the gains are not always as large as from the first year of preschool. This may be because children who attend two years of preschool are not experiencing a sequential building of instruction from the first to the second year.”

The take home message that advocates should share with policymakers: The evidence can’t be ignored. High-quality early education and care has a positive impact on children.

Later this week, in part II of this blog, we’ll look at what the policy brief says about early education’s quality, its long-term outcomes, and its effect on diverse subgroups.