Early Childhood Education: Small Students, Big Returns

edLast week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio released his much-anticipated preliminary budget.  As promised, he earmarked $530 million for universal pre-kindergarten (classroom programs for children under six). The commitment is expected to make pre-kindergarten the “centerpiece” of de Blasio’s first term.

But de Blasio is not alone in his support of early childhood education. Shortly after his inauguration, President Obama invested $10 billion in the cause via the 2009 stimulus package. He also expressed a desire to expand pre-kindergarten (with or without congress) in last month’s State of the Union address.

Indeed, early childhood education is “having a moment” in the United States. But is it warranted? Does formal education for young children actually produce significant beneficial effects?

A vast – and growing – body of research suggests “yes”. Early education promotes the formation of neural pathways in young minds, when they are most receptive to learning. Such pathways allow children to develop key academic, social, and cognitive skills. In this way, early childhood education increases student confidence and school readiness.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children
The benefits of early childhood education also persist over time. According to longitudinal studies, children who participate in early education programs demonstrate higher academic achievement, reduced grade repetition and drop-outs, and higher social and emotional functioning as teenagers. They also enjoy higher productivity, increased earning potential, and thus, greater self-sufficiency as adults. For these reasons, the estimated return on investment of early childhood education is $3 to $16 for every $1 spent.

But there is a key caveat. For early childhood education to have maximal impact, the programs must be high-quality. In other words, they must be well-designed and taught by top-rate teachers. Unfortunately, only 20 US states require all pre-kindergarten teachers to hold bachelor degrees. Furthermore, teachers with degrees are less inclined to work in early childhood education, as the pay is often lower. As a result, experts maintain that many pre-kindergarten teachers are poorly trained, particularly in age-appropriate strategies for teaching math and literacy.

Thus, funding for early childhood education should aim to do more than broaden access. It should also strive to produce better teachers, curricula, and teaching approaches. With a few tweaks, de Blasio and Obama’s proposed initiatives could produce such outcomes (as in New Jersey). However, private actors—such as non-profits and foundations—could also play an instrumental role.

To learn more about early childhood education, please click here. To support the cause, please donate to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Children’s Defense Fund, or our partners, Junior Achievement and the Newmarket Community Education Partnership.

Flickr Photo Credit: Eric Costello