SHANNON QUINN, EDUCATION DIRECTOR
In his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to expanding early childhood education, stating that, “Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old. And as a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight.” Some cities, such as New York City, have recently begun efforts in tackling the challenge of expanding and ultimately universalizing Pre-Kindergarten programs.
For years, research in early childhood education has shown that early exposure to education, especially among at-risk youth, reaps substantial benefit by both the individual and the community. However, implementing policy that capitalizes upon these benefits is the tricky part. Programs involving early childhood education that have sprung to life more often than not ignore research that is vital for successful implementation.
One of the most prominent long-term studies of the benefits of early childhood education, The HighScope Perry Preschool Project, surveys a group of individuals at various stages in their life through age 40. The annual study tracks participants placed in an early program versus a control group of individuals that were not. The findings from the study were significant. For example, the incidence of arrest in the Pre-K group was only 36% of participants, compared to the 55% of the non-program group. As shown in Figure 1, participants in the early education programs had higher IQs, were more likely to graduate from high school, and earned higher incomes as adults.
These studies show the strong promise of universal Pre-K programs. The problems lie within the existing traditional government-sponsored early education programs. Head Start and Early Head Start (EHS) both receive significant funding from the government to increase access of early education to low-income families; on January 17th, programs under the Head Start Act were allocated $8,598,095,000. This points to a continuous backing of a program that may not be living up to expectations.
Although there have been no long-term studies, like the Perry Project, done on Head Start, research on short-term effects show disappointing results. Figure 2 depicts the significant favorable impact on the child in differing areas of learning. The measurable impact that this program appears to have lasts barely longer than a year—in some cases, studied variables, such as spelling and oral comprehension, even fall short in the year that the child is enrolled in the program.
Studies have shown the inefficiencies of both Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Where the Perry Preschool Project used verified scientific methods in teaching young children, Head Start programs often lack structured implementation that produces positively-measured outcomes. Evidence shows that the curricula used in EHS programs has no significant impact on poor children in skills such as reading or math by the time they reach Kindergarten.
Many of these programs do not rely on stable, trained leadership and teachers, an essential factor in the success of previous Pre-K research projects. Despite this necessity, the lack coordination of funds, resources, and qualified teachers seriously inhibits the success of many Head Start programs. Although some modest short-term improvement has been seen, ample amount of evidence points to little impact in the long run. Despite these shortcomings, these programs are still propped up without any serious contemplation of improvements. This is troubling when coupled with the push of Head Start programs as one of the primary means expanding early childhood education.
If we are to change the state of our stagnant education in this country, we must look seriously at the outcome deficits of our existing funded programs with an eye towards strengthening them. A successful early education program will implement curricula that have been verified by research. Prioritizing the training and retaining strong teachers is key. Sweeping under the rug inefficiencies with the hopes that they’ll simply disappear will only keep a platform with much potential in the working stages. Constantly re-evaluating and critiquing the progress of education programs such as Head Start will allow new, innovative improvements to these programs critical to the success of our nation’s children.
Simply doling out money to programs that don’t have the highest impact possible will no longer cut it if we really want to make progress in education to get the projected returns on investment. Improvement should be made on coordination of allotted funds in order to more efficiently to reach the areas that are in most desperate need of early education intervention. New or stronger initiatives will be refreshing in an arena where the same ideas—ideas that don’t seem to quite be getting the job done—resurface again and again.
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