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Early Learning Impact: What does the Research Say?

Lifelong Impact

There is a great deal of evidence and consensus that children in quality pre-k programs become adults with more positive life outcomes, including higher incomes and more job-hours worked, less reliance on publicly funded social supports, fewer chronic health issues, and a lower likelihood to be engaged in criminal behavior.

Bang for the Buck

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Studies show that every $1.00 invested in high-quality pre-k programs generates a financial return ranging from $4-17.00, depending on the specific program and the method used to calculate returns.  This exceeds the return generated from most stock market investments!  Much of this research was spearheaded by Nobel Laureate James Heckman of the University of Chicago. For more on Dr. Heckman’s case for increasing public investments in our youngest children, please visit his website, The Heckman Equation.

What about Academic Outcomes?

While we understand the lifetime benefits of quality early learning, the short and medium-term benefits for elementary and high school students are less straightforward. Most studies demonstrate improved kindergarten readiness for children who have attended quality early learning programs, but some highly publicized studies point to a possible “fade-out” of academic benefits by the time children reach second or third grade. The Learning Policy Institute recently took a hard look at the sometimes contradictory research conclusions by conducting a comprehensive review of 21 studies measuring the academic impact of pre-k programs. Last week they released their findings in the report, Untangling the Evidence on Preschool Effectiveness: Insights for Policymakers.

The Learning Policy Institute research found a clear connection between participation in quality preschool programs and student success. Students who attend preschool programs are more prepared for school and are less likely to be identified as having special needs or to be held back in elementary school than children who did not attend preschool. Studies also show clear positive effects on children’s early literacy and mathematics skills. The evidence about continued effects beyond school entry is also positive, but less consistent.

A Source of Confusion—Research Design

LPI’s report noted that contradictory research study outcomes can be caused by the design of the research studies. Determining a preschool program’s effectiveness requires researchers to compare children who attend that preschool program to similar children who do not, so that any differences can be attributed to the program. The children in the comparison group probably participate in some type of early learning program, and if children from both groups attend different, but equally high-quality preschools, there might not be a difference in outcomes between the two groups of children. Rather than conclude that the program being studied doesn’t work, the reasonable conclusion might be that both sets of children are performing better than they would have without preschool and better than children who did not attend preschool at all.

What Works

Research indicates that the preschool programs having the most substantial impact incorporate most or all of the following quality components:  well-qualified educators, a developmentally appropriate curriculum, and adequate learning time. To read the complete report or view a webinar presentation of the Learning Policy Institute report findings, click here.

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