High-quality early-childhood programs boost graduation rates, reduce grade retention and cut down on special education placements, according to a new analysis of several other early-education research studies that adds fresh fuel to long-running policy debates about the effectiveness of pre-K.
“These results suggest that the benefits of early-childhood education programs do in fact persist beyond the preschool year,” said Dana Charles McCoy, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in an email interview. McCoy was the lead author on the analysis, which was published Thursday in the journal Educational Researcher.
“Given how costly retention, special education, and dropout can be for both individuals and societies, our results suggest that investments in high-quality early-childhood education programming are likely to pay off in the long term,” McCoy said.
The findings contrast with other research, such as on the federal Head Start program and on Tennessee’s preschool program, that have found that the behavioral and academic benefits of those programs fade over time.
The Head Start and Tennessee studies, however, examined child outcomes a few years into participants’ elementary school years. In contrast, this new analysis took a longer view; many of the studies tracked children into high school and beyond. The researchers found that participants in early-childhood programs had an 8.1 percentage point reduction on special education placement and an 8.3 percentage point reduction in grade retention compared to similar peers. Participants also had an 11.4 percentage point increase in high-school graduation.
New Analysis Combines Results of Previous Early-Childhood Research
The new paper combines the results of 22 research papers on early-childhood programs that were conducted from 1960 to 2016. The researchers included only papers that met a strict research design—for example, the comparison groups of children were similar at the outset, the studies didn’t have a large percentage of children dropping out, and there was enough data to calculate the effects of the early-childhood program on each of three areas researchers were looking at.
Some of the studies included are well-known, such as the Perry Preschool project conducted in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s, or the 1970-era Abecedarian early-childhood program conducted in 1970s. Those particular programs have been well-studied for their long-lasting benefits to children. But they were particularly intensive, and early-childhood programs don’t look much like that any more, critics have noted.
The new analysis, however, includes newer research, including studies of children attending preschool in some of New Jersey’s poorest urban districts; research on children attending a birth-through-5 program in Tulsa, Okla., and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, which enrolled primarily black children from low-income families and tracked their outcomes.
“One of the primary advantages of our study is that we are able to include more than five decades’ worth of programs, including recent studies that are more representative of the modern early-childhood landscape,” McCoy said.
“With that said, because we are looking at outcomes that are only observable years—or even decades—after children attend preschool, we can’t necessarily make conclusions about whether the programs that are being implemented today will show benefits like the ones we observe in our study.”
Even so, the early-childhood field is “in agreement that high-quality early-education does work, both for supporting children and for supporting working families,” McCoy said.
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