By Madeleine Webster
In 2001, Oklahoma became one of the nation’s first states to implement a universal pre-K program. Since then, a large and growing body of evidence has told us that early childhood education (ECE) programs improve school readiness and reduce achievement gaps.
Yet, until now, research on the long-term benefits of ECE has been sparse. In a new report published by the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management in December 2017, ECE researchers have demonstrated that on average, the Tulsa pre-K program had positive impacts on middle school math scores, enrollment in honors courses and grade retention.
Another recent study also found that high-quality pre-K can reduce placement in special education by 8 percent, decrease grade retention by 8 percent and increase high school graduation rates by 11 percent.
Conversely, a 2015 study of Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K programs found that while children coming from ECE programs earned higher achievement scores in kindergarten, these students did not test higher than their non-ECE attending peers by first grade, and tested below their peers by the third grade.
Determining the long-term benefits of ECE is complicated. In a recent NCSL webinar, “Pre-School Effects: What the Research Does and Doesn’t Say,” Deborah Phillips, a national ECE expert, explained why, saying that learning is continuous and cumulative, which makes pinpointing cause and effect within a child’s education difficult.
It’s possible, she said, that students might receive redundant or poor instruction in elementary school, nullifying the gains the students made in preschool, adding that students might attend kindergarten with many children who did not go to preschool, requiring the teacher to play catch up with those not attending preschool.
Phillips and other ECE experts argue that high-quality pre-K is beneficial, especially among low-income and minority students, though only a handful of states currently have universal pre-K programming. Though the Tulsa study is helpful, more research is needed on the long-term educational benefits of ECE. Until then, states can learn more about the research, policy and news in ECE at on NCSL’s websites Early Education and Support and Closing Opportunity Gaps Through Early Learning Policies Under ESSA.
Madeleine Webster is a policy specialist in NCSL's Education program.