EDUCATION
11/13/2012 01:20 pm ET

Preschool Education Deserves Expansion, Investment: National Education Policy Center Brief

In a brief released Tueday, National Education Policy Center managing director Dr. William Mathis urges policymakers to invest in high-quality preschool education, citing its universally acknowledged economic and social benefits.

According to Mathis, in inflation-adjusted dollars, overall funding per child is lower than a decade ago, despite the fact that high-quality, intensive preschool education for at least two years has been found to close as much as half the achievement gap.

Involvement in preschool programs can also yield more positive adult outcomes, such as fewer arrests, less drug use, fewer grade retentions, higher college attendance rates, higher employment and earnings, greater social mobility and less welfare dependency.

Mathis goes on to explain the key elements of a quality preschool program, which include small class sizes and ratios — 20 or fewer children, with two adults. He also says programs should boast well-trained, adequately compensated teachers and include strong links to social and health services. The author highlights the importance of featuring a mix of child-initiated and teacher directed activities, with adequate time for individualized and small group interactions.

According to Mathis’ brief, economically deprived children benefit most from preschool, but all children experience some advantage from participation in such programs. Branching off that, children from middle-income families tend to struggle with access because they are not eligible for programs like Head Start, which enrolls fewer students than state or district programs. Results indicate Head Start is a cost-effective program with lesser but nonetheless positive results, suggesting it should be retained but also strengthened

Besides broad investment in preschool, Mathis recommends states develop and monitor early education standards in order to ensure quality programs. Furthermore, programs should be expanded to include three-year-olds, with an emphasis on needy children and promoting the well-being of the “whole child.”

The results of a Chicago-based study released last June bolstered the findings from similar, smaller studies showing that high-quality preschool "gives you your biggest bang for the buck," according to Dr. Pamela High, chair of an American Academy of Pediatrics committee that deals with early childhood issues. The study tracked more than 1,000 low-income, mostly black Chicago children for up to 25 years, including nearly 900 who attended the city’s intensive Child-Parent Center Education Program in the early 1980s. Overall, those who attended the program fared much better in life than their peers who did not attend preschool, recording fewer arrest and securing better jobs.

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