Investment in Early Childhood Education
Occasional Paper – Vol: 1
One of the key factors in Utah’s mediocre reading and math scores is that too many children, particularly those from disadvantaged families, arrive at elementary school unprepared to learn with significant deficits in basic skills which often follow them for many years. In Utah, the opportunities for early childhood education, including preschool and full-day kindergarten, are limited. Only 13 percent of Utah children attend a publicly funded preschool, which is second to last in the country. A similar number of children attend full-day kindergarten.
There is significant research that confirms both short- and long-term benefits of investment in early childhood programs.
- According to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, several longitudinal impact studies of preschool programs in North Carolina, Chicago, and Michigan, found that the programs resulted in dollar benefits of between 2.4 and 16.2 times the cost of operating them.
- A 2014 report issued by the White House indicated that, “across all studies and time periods, early childhood education increases cognitive and achievement scores and reduces by nearly half the black-white difference in the kindergarten achievement gap.”
Moreover, early childhood education “can increase earnings in adulthood by 1.3 to 3.5 percent,” and that these “earnings gains alone are bigger than the costs of such programs.”
- A November 2014 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reporting on a pilot expansion of the Child-Parent Center Education Program (CPC) in Chicago and a handful of other Midwestern school districts in Illinois and Minnesota, concluded: “[F]ull-day preschool was associated with higher scores in 4 of 6 areas of school readiness skills – language, math, socio-emotional development, and physical health, increased attendance, and reduced chronic absences by 26 percent to 45 percent over part-day services.” The AMA emphasized, “Full-day preschool appears to be a promising strategy for school readiness."
- The Boston Public Schools evaluated its free pre-kindergarten (“K1”) program and examined the results of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessment; a test of early reading skills that is now required of all public schools in Utah. The study found that: 1) Black and Hispanic/Latino students who participate in K1 outperform white students who do not participate in K1; 2) students who qualify for free or reduced lunch who participate in K1 outperform students who do not qualify for free and reduced lunch and who do not participate in K1; and 3) upon entering kindergarten, students who participated in the K1 program were 50 percent more likely to be “ready for kindergarten” than students who did not participate.
Utah has made some innovative attempts to provide early childhood education to more students, including a “pay for success” model funded by Goldman Sachs and administered by the United Way of Salt Lake that allows more than 3,500 children in the Granite School District to participate in preschool. UPSTART, an online preschool program developed by the Waterford Institute, serves 6,000 preschool children statewide. However, these programs could only reach a small fraction of the disadvantaged children who stand to benefit from preschool programs. More investment is needed.
Guidelines for Future Efforts
Future investment should allow for local innovation, encourage public-public and public-private partnerships to maximize resources, and require the implementation of evidence-based practices, including phonics instruction, expanded math and science instruction, positive behavior interventions, and robust professional development for teachers and staff. Focusing on these core elements will produce measurable outcomes.