Preschool Effects: Consensus Research


Introduction and Fast Facts

Between 2002 and 2017, state spending on pre-K programs increased from $2.4 billion to $7.6 billion, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Adjusted for inflation, this constitutes an increase of nearly $4 billion, more than doubling states' investment over the last 15 years.

While mostly pointing to the positive educational benefits of high-quality pre-K, some educational research has found the effects may fade out over time. In Spring 2017, lead early childhood education researchers came together to release the findings of their consensus report on the multitude of pre-K research. They attempted to answer questions such as: 

  • Do pre-K effects last?
  • What does high quality pre-K look like and how much does it cost?
  • Who benefits the most from high quality pre-K? 

This is timely information as state policymakers need accurate, unbiased information to make critical decisions on pre-K education decisions.

Preschool kids laying in a circleHere are some fast facts on state-funded pre-K education across the country:

  • 43 states plus D.C. provide state-funded pre-K programs (seven states provide no state-funded program).
  • The national per-pupil funding average is $5,008 for pre-K students compared to $11,392 for K-12 students
  • 33 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded pre-K; 5 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled.
  • Four states plus D.C. serve more than 70 percent of 4-year-olds. 19 states currently serve less than 10 percent of 4-year-olds.
  • Five state programs met all 10 quality benchmarks, with an additional 15 meeting nine of 10 benchmarks.

Frequently Asked Questions/Consensus Statements
Is high quality pre-K more advantageous for certain groups of students? Economically disadvantaged children and dual language learners show greater improvements in learning at the end of the pre-K year than more advantaged and English-proficient children. Dual language students comprise about 23 percent of the early learning population.
What are best practices and investments to make for pre-K? Among the most evidence-based practices and investments are a well-implemented, evidence-based curricula, coaching for teachers and an ordely but active classroom.
Do pre-K effects fadeout over time?  Pre-K effects cannot be examined in isolation. Children's experiences before and after must be considered. A longitudinal study of Tulsa's state-funded pre-K program showed that middle school students who attended the program were more likely to score higher on math assessments and be enrolled in honors courses. Research also suggests that pre-K effects are more likely to persist when students receive high-quality elementary education. An evaluation of Tennessee's state pre-K program found effects did fade over time, but largely attributed the fadeout to varying classroom quality due to inconsistent scaling up of the program. 
What does the research say about immediate effects? Convincing evidence exists that children attending a diverse array of pre-K environments are more ready for school at the end of their pre-K year than those who do not attend. Improvements in literacy and numeracy are most common. Social-emotional and self-regulatory development generally show more modest improvements.
Is scaled-up pre-K effective, what does the research say? There is limited research on the evidence of longer-term impacts of scaled up pre-K.  
What is next for the research field, what is needed? Ongoing innovation and evaluation are needed during and after preschool to ensure improvement in creating and sustaining gains made.

Archived Webinar

With the generous support of the Heising-Simons Foundation, this hour-long webinar features an overview of the new Brookings Institution policy brief developed by several leading early childhood education researchers to reach consensus on what the preschool effects literature does and does not say. Topics such as fadeout, long-term achievement and return on investment are discussed, including an audience question-and-answer session.

View the archived webinar.

Matt Weyer is a senior policy specialist in NCSL's Education Program

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