President Barack Obama’s visit Thursday to an Atlanta preschool — two days after making early childhood education a second-term priority — comes as the nation develops a new understanding of its importance, driven by advances in neuroscience and urgency in closing the achievement gap between poor and privileged children.
A small but increasing number of states have invested tax dollars in preschool during the past decade, and millions of parents are walking their 3- and 4-year-old children into classrooms instead of keeping them at home or with a baby sitter.
Much of this new emphasis comes from a growing body of research about the developing brains of young children.
“People learn more in the first five years of life than they do in any other five-year period,” said Andrew Meltzoff of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, where researchers are making profound early learning discoveries. “Kids are just like little sponges in the first 2,000 days” of life.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Obama proposed working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America, saying it pays huge dividends by boosting graduation rates and reducing teen pregnancy and violent crime.
“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job and form more stable families of their own,” Obama said, singling out Republican states. “We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”
The president made no mention of how much it would cost to provide universal preschool or how it would be funded.
The Obama administration focused much of its first-term education agenda on K-12 school reform and college affordability. In 2011, it spent a relatively small amount — $633 million — on competitive grants for nine states to create high-quality preschool programs.
Educators see high-quality early childhood education as especially important to help close the achievement gap, which has been demonstrated to exist among children as young as 3 years old.
Studies show that preschool is particularly valuable for low-income children, who as adults are less likely to end up in the criminal justice system, more likely to be employed and earn higher incomes, and less likely to receive public benefits when compared with at-risk children who do not attend preschool.
“The way you measure the benefits are not necessarily in grades or better test scores, but really, those kids seem to do better as adults,” said Tracy King, a pediatrician who teaches at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Early education for low-income children is estimated to generate $4 to $11 in benefits for every dollar spent on the program, according to a cost-benefit analysis funded by the National Institutes of Health. Nobel Laureate James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, says the return on investment for pre-K is stronger than the stock market’s average performance since World War II.
The potential benefits of preschool have led nine states and the District of Columbia to fund free preschool for all 4-year-olds, up from just three states a decade ago.
Washington also offers free preschool for 3-year-olds.
The percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs doubled from 2000 to 2010 and the percentage of 3-year-olds increased slightly.
Nearly half of all 4-year-olds and 20 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded or federally funded preschool programs in 2011, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Those state-funded programs cost taxpayers about $5.5 billion, an average of about $5,000 a child. Still, 10 states do not fund preschool of any kind.
Critics of an expanded government role in preschool say that the nation has plenty of experience with federal preschool education — the Head Start program — and that results are lackluster.
“Overall, there is very little evidence of lasting benefits from Head Start,” said Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank. “We’ve had Head Start for 50 years, and we still have an achievement gap. On the whole, the program doesn’t seem to have accomplished what it set out to accomplish.”
Head Start, created in 1965, is designed for 3- to 5-year-olds from low-income families. Services vary by location, but they include medical care, meals, social services and education.
Last year, federal officials released a study of Head Start that found for most children in the program, academic benefits faded by third grade. There was one exception: Children from at-risk families who enrolled at age 3 showed sustained academic gains.
By Lyndsey Layton and Susan Svrluga, Washington Post
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