Preschool: the benefits for children and society

Wall Street Journal

Over the years, research has shown that going to preschool can benefit children immediately in many ways–building and strengthening academic skills plus social and personal skills like self-control and listening. Other research makes a strong economic argument and ties quality preschool to significant impacts later in life: more employment, higher earnings, more home ownership, less crime.

Despite these potential benefits, preschool education is not consistently funded in the United States, levels of support vary by state.

According to NIEER (the National Institute for Early Education Research), “across the 44 [U.S.] states, DC, and Guam that funded a preschool program in 2019-2020, 34% of 4-year-olds and 6% of 3-year-olds were enrolled, essentially the same as last year … Most states still spend too little per child to support high-quality, full-day pre-K and most do not come close to reaching all 3- and 4-year-olds or even all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds” (from https://nieer.org/state-preschool-yearbooks). In comparison, a far higher percentage of children attend preschool in Canada and countries in Europe.

Should there be free, universal preschool for all three and four-year-olds? What are the risks and the benefits? What does the research say?

**created November 2021**

Featured articles–these articles have been added to Science Primary Literature (external database):

*Ansari, A., Pianta, R. C., Whittaker, J. V., Vitiello, V. E., & Ruzek, E. A. (2020). Persistence and convergence: The end of kindergarten outcomes of pre-K graduates and their nonattending peers. Developmental Psychology, 56(11), 2027-2039. [PDF] [Cited by]

“The present investigation examined the benefits of pre-K through the end of kindergarten for children from low-income homes who lived in a large and diverse county (n = 2,581) as well as factors associated with a reduction in benefits during the kindergarten year. Results revealed that pre-K graduates outperformed nonattenders in the areas of achievement and executive functioning skills at the end of kindergarten, and also that the benefits of pre-K at the start of the year diminished by a little more than half. This convergence between groups’ performance was largest for more constrained skills, such as letter-word identification, and was attributed to the fact that nonattenders made greater gains in kindergarten as compared with graduates of pre-K. Importantly, convergence in the groups’ performance in kindergarten was not attributed to pre-K children’s classroom experiences in kindergarten. Convergence was, however, attributable to preexisting individual differences, and there was support for the notion that even though children’s skills are susceptible to improvement as a result of pre-K, their longer-term outcomes are likely to be impacted by factors that are outside the scope of early schooling.”

*Dietrichson, J., Kristiansen, I. L., & Viinholt, B. A. (2020). Universal Preschool Programs and Long‐Term Child Outcomes: A Systematic Review. Journal of Economic Surveys, 34(5), 1007-1043. [PDF] [Cited by]

“What are the long‐term effects of universal preschool programs on child outcomes? We review 26 studies using natural experiments to estimate the effects of universal preschool programs for children aged 0–6 years on child outcomes measured from third grade to adulthood. Studies comparing universal preschool with a mix of parental, family, and private modes of care show mixed effects on test scores and on measures related to health, well‐being, and behavior. All estimates for outcomes related to adequate primary and secondary school progression, years of schooling, highest degree completed, employment, and earnings indicate beneficial average effects of universal preschool programs. Three of the included studies calculate benefits‐to‐costs ratios and find ratios clearly above one. Universal preschool tends to be more beneficial for children with low socioeconomic status and there are not consistently different effects for boys or girls. Only three studies compare two alternative types of universal preschool programs in terms of long‐term outcomes.”

*Schmerse, D. (2020). Preschool quality effects on learning behavior and later achievement in Germany: Moderation by socioeconomic status. Child Development, 91(6), 2237-2254. [PDF] [Cited by]

“This study investigates whether children’s preschool experiences are associated with later achievement via enhanced learning behaviors using data from a German longitudinal study following children (N = 554) from age 3 in preschool to age 8 in second grade. There were two main findings. First, results suggest that more positive learning behaviors at school entry mediate effects of teacher–child interactions in preschool on second‐grade achievement. Second, these effects varied by parental socioeconomic status (SES) indicating that low‐SES children benefited the most. The findings highlight the role of preschool classroom environments in shaping the school readiness of children with socioeconomic risk factors.”

*Schweinhart, L. J. (2007). Crime prevention by the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program. Victims & Offenders, 2(2), 141-160. [Cited by]

“A sample of 123 young African American children living in poverty were randomly assigned to a program group that received a high-quality preschool program at ages 3 and 4 or a no-program group. Data were collected regarding them on 14 occasions, from ages 3 through 40. The program group significantly surpassed the no-program group in tested ability and performance throughout childhood; higher adult earnings and rates of employment and home ownership; half as many lifetime arrests, including fewer lifetime arrests for violent, property, and drug crimes; and fewer convictions and months sentenced. The economic return to society was $17.07 per dollar invested.”

The most current version of this bibliography can be seen at Science Bibliographies Online (external site).

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).

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