The Importance of Accessible Pre-Kindergarten Programs

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In many states this year’s ballot includes the proposal to offer universal prekindergarten (pre-K). Pre-K refers to programs that provide a year of education prior to kindergarten entry. Universal pre-K are pre-K programs that are voluntary state programs opened to all age-eligible children regardless of family income. Some would argue that the federal, state and local government should not fund such programs as they can be very costly. However, pre-K’s importance in developing school readiness and future academic success is vastly underestimated by the general public. Many studies show there are long lasting affects on a child who attends pre-K, making the spending well worth it. Pre-K should be free and accessible to everyone as research overwhelming demonstrates pre-K’s importance in establishing and developing the cognitive, behavioral, and social skills that help all children make a smooth transition into formal schooling.

Many believe that pre-K is simply playtime for children. The purpose of pre-K is not to immerse young children straight into academic rigor. Pre-K is used to develop various skills needed for progression through the grades. It sets the foundation for a successful academic career. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, playtime in preschool is highly structured in order to develop and improve gross/fine motor, social, language, and cognitive skills (“Development”). Pre-K helps physical development in young children. Teachers allow children to participate in various activities that allow them to move their arms and legs to gain gross motor skill functions, as well as their fingers and hands to gain fine motor skill functions (“Development”). These activities include climbing, throwing, and exploring materials like paints and puzzles.

Through their play sessions, children learn to respect others, as well as how to work together. They build their social skills and self-control (“Development”). Teachers support them in these efforts by teaching them how to resolve conflicts that might arise during play time. Resolving conflicts allows children to understand their own feelings and the feelings of those around them. Teachers help navigate these emotions by teaching them to recognize and manage their own feelings and behaviors. Through these experiences, a child’s language center becomes consistently stimulated. Children have a lot of opportunities to listen to and speak with others (“Development”). They learn about their classmates’ backgrounds and culture. Teachers use these opportunities to teach social studies and cultural acceptance. Teachers encourage children to share information, ideas and feelings with each other in attempts to aid in language acquisition. Teachers also use rich vocabulary, encourage children to use longer, more detailed sentences by adding to what they say in conversations, and they ask questions that encourage thinking and require more than a yes-or-no answer (“Development”).

Cognitive and thinking skills develop as children learn to think on a more complex level, make decisions, and solve problems (“Development”). As young children explore and ask questions, they improve their thinking skills. Teachers help preschoolers develop their thinking skills by providing new experiences or materials for them to explore, as well as offering suggestions that encourage more complex play and thinking. An important component to complex thinking is early reading and writing. It is done in preschools to accustom children to the idea of reading, rhyming sounds and letters. They will often listen to and talk about stories. In doing so, they eventually learn to read and write their own names and simple words. Some play centers are dedicated for basic science, social studies, math, art and music which enhance cognition as well as the imagination.

All of these skills combined have shown to noticeably enhance a child’s cognitive, social and behavioral skills between the time they start pre-K and after pre-K. Given the growing recognition among educators and parents that pre-K has a positive impact on children, more and more states are working to expand the number of children served by their pre-K programs. The number of states that administer publicly funded pre-K services has soared from 10 in 1980 to 39 in 2019 (Barnett et al. 1). Over the past 15 years, state-funded pre-K programs have more than doubled in size and now there is a total of 1.5 million children nationally attending. There is a combined total federal spending exceeding $24 billion for the 2017-2018 school year (Barnett et al. 2). State funds for pre-K reached a record breaking $8 billion across the 39 states in 2018 (‘NIEER’, 4). Due to the sharp increase in government spending on pre-K, many studies are being funded to analyze the impact this spending is having on children and if it is justified spending.

A study was done to estimate the effects of eight state-funded pre-K programs (Arkansas, California, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia) on children’s learning. Although these preschool programs varied on population served, program structure and size, the estimated effects on literacy were almost uniformly large, moderate on math and smallest for language (Barnett et al. 10). On average, the programs were found to produce gains in children’s learning at kindergarten entry for all students regardless of socioeconomic background or ethnicity. The study illustrates that pre-K can improve learning/cognition and development for both disadvantaged and general populations, at least in the short term. The study stated that findings showed that success rates vary greatly between the states, suggesting that more studies need to be done at the state and local level to analyze the different factors involved.

Programs vary greatly with respect to funding and eligibility criteria across the varying states which has resulted in a wide range of structural differences. This has made it difficult for researches to truly evaluate the impact of pre-K as a whole nationally. However, newer studies done at the local or state levels have shown strong positive impacts pre-K has on child development. Most state pre-K programs are targeted to disadvantaged children, but six states have established programs that are considered “universal pre-K” that allow all students, regardless if they have a disadvantage or not, to attend pre-K. These states are, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, West Virginia and Oklahoma.

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Georgetown University did a study of Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program in order to analyze the impact the program was having on children participating in it. This study confirms that Oklahoma’s pre-kindergarten program is successfully helping kids prepare for school. The study’s sample consisted of 1,567 pre-K children and 1,461 kindergarten children who had just completed pre-K (Gormley et al. 4). The authors estimated the impact of the pre-K treatment on Woodcock–Johnson Achievement test scores. The authors found test impacts of 3.00 points (0.79 of the standard deviation for the control group) for the Letter–Word Identification score, 1.86 points (0.64 of the standard deviation of the control group) for the Spelling score, and 1.94 points (0.38 of the standard deviation of the control group) for the Applied Problems score (Gormley et al. 7). The drastic impact for the Letter-World Identification score is extremely worth noting because that type of identification skill has been found to be particularly predictive of literacy success beyond Grade 3 (Snow and Matthews 64).

Prior to the Georgetown University study, local studies concluded that pre-K program that Hispanic and Black children, but not White children, benefited significantly in cognitive and language domains (Gormley et al. 9). The study was able to prove that Hispanic, Black, Native American and White children all benefit from the program, as do children in diverse income brackets, as measured by school lunch eligibility status (Gormley et al. 9). The researchers conclude that Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program has succeeded in enhancing the school readiness of a diverse group of children.

A more recent study found that economically disadvantaged children attending Georgia’s pre-K program began preschool scoring below national norms on letter and word recognition. By the time they started kindergarten the students were scoring above national norms (Henry et al. 9). Similarly, a study in Michigan found that teachers rated students who attended a pre-K program higher in language, literacy, math, music, and social relations. In addition, students who attended a pre-K program were more likely to pass the Michigan Educational Assessment Program’s reading and mathematics tests (Xiang and Schweinhart, 13). This study also saw marked differences of social skills between children who attended pre-K before kindergarten, and those that did not. Those that attended pre-K were drastically ahead in social and verbal cues (Xiang and Schweinhart, 14). They also were much better at composing themselves in the classroom, with less eruptions of problematic behavior (Xiang and Schweinhart, 14).

In 1995, a federal program named Early Head Start began for low-income pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers. The program delivered early learning, health, nutrition, and family support services to children ages 3 through 5. Caregivers were diverse in race, ethnicity, language, and other characteristics. The program was evaluated through a randomized trial of 3,001 families in 17 programs (Love et al. 9). Interviews with primary caregivers, child assessments, and observations of parent-child interactions were completed when children were 3 years old. The study showed that 3 year old children that engaged in Early Head Start performed better than control children did in cognitive and language development (Love et al. 12). They also displayed higher emotional engagement of the parent and sustained attention with play objects, and were lower in aggressive behavior (Love et al. 12). This study provides further scientific evidence that pre-K aids in the development and enhancement of social and behavior skills.

The majority of the studies that have been done on the impact of pre-K have been short term studies analyzing what the child gains within that first year of pre-K up until the end of elementary school. There have been very few longitudinal studies done thus far. However, The Perry Project is one of the two most-often cited studies thought to prove the long-term benefits of early childhood education. The longitudinal study began as a research study attempting to answer whether access to high-quality education could have a positive impact on preschool children and the communities where they live. It was initially conducted from 1962-1967, but led to a longitudinal study were they followed the Perry Preschool participants for decades. Under the research guidance of psychologist David Weikart, 123 preschool children with risk factors of failing in school were randomly divided into two groups. One group entered a high-quality preschool program based on HighScope’s active learning approach. The other group served as a comparison group that received no preschool education. By age 5, 67% of those who had attended the pre-K program had an IQ higher than 90, compared to 28% for those who had not attended the program (“Perry Preschool Project”). By age 14, children that had been in the pre-K program had a 34% higher basic academic achievement rate than those that hadn’t (“Perry Preschool Project”). At age 15, those who had been in the pre-K program were 23% more likely to do and finish their homework (“Perry Preschool Project”). The longitudinal study found that at age 40, the participants who experienced the preschool program had fewer teenage pregnancies, were more likely to have graduated from high school, were more likely to hold a job and have higher earnings (almost $20,000 more annually), committed fewer crimes, and owned their own home and car (“Perry Preschool Project”).

Many critics of universal pre-K note the high cost of pre-K. The Perry Project was able to prove return on initial investment spent per pre-K child. The state had saved $7,303 on education, $2,768 on welfare, and $171,473 on crime per child (“Perry Preschool Project”). Essentially there was a $12.90 return per dollar initially invested for each child in the program. It quite literally saves the state money to invest in pre-K education.

Pre-K programs enrich a child’s life. Studies on pre-K have repeatedly and consistently shown that pre-K programs drastically improve the cognitive, literacy, behavioral and social skills of children. In addition, this was seen for all children regardless of ethnicity, race or socioeconomic background. This is a huge implication because it could potentially help in narrowing the gap between the differences in education different economic classes receive. Not only does Pre-K set students up for future success academically, socially behaviorally as children, but also as adults all while saving the state thousands of dollars in future expenses. It is important to ensure that pre-K is universal and available for all, not just for those who can afford it.

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