“If school is about learning, and learning starts at birth, then the idea that we expect Kindergarteners to meet their first teachers at age five is all wrong (English, 2018)”. There is increasing research being facilitated on early education with specific emphasis on the overall benefits it has on children. The range of benefits discussed in recent research include academic achievement, behavior, educational progression and attainment, delinquency and crime, and labor market success, among other domains (RAND, 2005).
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While much research is available on the outcomes of early childhood education, it is the objective of this paper is to focus on the range of benefits and outcomes of early childhood education on disadvantaged and underserved children.
In this literature review, I will discuss scholarly research findings which cover several elements of effective, quality early childhood education in underserved communities. This research covers topics such as how high-quality early education would narrow achievement gaps, lower involvement in the criminal justice system, and provide adequate return on financial investment for communities.
Although there is substantial research data detailing what early education programs need to have in order to provide effective, quality education through Kindergarten; one study, synthesized by the RAND corporation (2005), had some interesting and promising findings. In 2005, the RAND Corporation did a research brief outlining scientifically based, published research on the benefits of early childhood education. The brief compared twenty early education programs throughout the nation, which provide varied, but effective approaches to early education. These programs used various interventions which span from prenatal services through Kindergarten readiness programs. According to an article, How Pre School Fights Poverty, Cynthia Lamy of ASCD.org, while the programs had various success in their methods, the research was able to conclude that each of the programs included a combination of the following elements: adequately trained, professionally educated caregivers/educators, smaller child-to-staff ratios, comprehensive and intensive services for children and families (Lamy, 2012).
These programs also constituted a variety of settings; some were center-based early childhood education programs, some provided more parent-focused education and intervention through home-based or alternate settings, while others were a combination of the two.
The information provided by this report details more about intervention features that generate better outcomes for children. This is significant because it equips policymakers and educators with valuable, scientifically sound data to achieve optimal designs for the children and families that they serve.
The overwhelming evidence shows that children who enter kindergarten behind are likely to remain behind throughout their educational careers and beyond. These gaps in achievement are difficult and expensive to close with K-12 education alone. An article published on Every Child Matters.org, discusses the importance of early education and closing long-standing achievement gaps. This article references a report by President’s Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors titled, “The Economics of Early childhood Investments”, in which it discusses why high quality, dependable, affordable, and accessible child care for children early on is important as we continue to see growth in both the opportunity and achievement gaps children face nationally. Although still an issue, the research on achievement gaps shows promising results-in with the black-white disparity. In an analysis by President Obama’s Council on Academic Advisers (2015), early childhood education increases cognitive and achievement scores by 0.35 standard deviations on average, or nearly half the black-white difference in the kindergarten achievement gap. Since higher income children are currently more likely to have access to high-quality early education, expanding access to underserved children would likely narrow the achievement.
Although we know narrowing the achievement gap is a focus of early education, it is also important to understand what skills promote Kindergarten readiness and how to get children there. The above-mentioned article on the importance of early childhood education also states how communities can help ensure children show up to kindergarten ready to learn by providing options for accessing high-quality early childhood programs where they can develop the full range of skills necessary to be successful in school and life (Beaver, 2016). In addition to this, an infographic provided by the Zero to Three organization (2012), informs that a child who has received effective, quality early childhood education and is “Kindergarten ready”, will have the following attributes:
healthy relationships with adults, varied experiences (especially with words/vocabulary), appropriate emotional responses (empathy, resilience, self-control etc.) and learn through play and be good problem solvers.
These children, according to Mike English of Pre-KC, will now be ready for Kindergarten, they will also be more likely to read proficiently by then end of third grade, and ultimately graduate high school prepared for college or the workforce (English, 2018).
Children who enter school at higher levels of readiness have higher earnings throughout their lives. They are also healthier and less likely to become involved with the criminal justice system. These positive spillovers suggest that investments in early childhood can benefit society. Research shows that improving cognitive and socio-emotional development, investments in early childhood education may reduce involvement with the criminal justice system. Lower crime translates into benefits to society from increased safety and security as well as lower costs to the criminal justice system. Early childhood education programs supplemented with family supports, provide a range of emotional, informational, and/or educational support to families with infants and preschool-age children. Early education programs are usually center based, and their core service is usually to provide an educational curriculum to groups of preschoolers or infants and toddlers, but they can also provide services as varied as basic preventive health care, informational support regarding parenting and child development, and emotional support (Yoshikawa, 1995). This literature states that programs which address multiple risk factors of delinquency in youth (ex: low-income households, single parent, low parent education level, low birth weight/preterm) and that blend aspects of family supports, and early childhood education are the foster the most promising results when it comes to steering youth away from involvement in the criminal justice system.
A common argument for supporting early childhood is that it is a good “investment.” Often, the term is used colloquially, meaning that early childhood is an area in which funders can make a positive difference, and that support is broadly beneficial for children. While the colloquial meaning of investment is certainly valid, when business people and economists talk about investment and return on investment in early childhood, they generally mean something more specific. This brief explores the notion of return on investment, and the rationale behind the economic and business case for spending on early childhood. Early childhood programs cost money, of course, but studies show that the benefits associated with such programs also come with monetary gains and savings. When the projected benefits exceed the projected costs, then these programs be “paying for themselves” and then some over time. In other words, the original investment generates a financial return.
The primary beneficiaries are children and their parents. For example, if a low-income parent is able to secure a place for her child in a high-quality daycare program, that child is likely to benefit from exposure to a wider array of learning opportunities than he or she might have at home. Enrolling her child in daycare may also open the door for the parent to take on employment or further her education in order to improve her career prospects. Those individual benefits can be substantial, and life-changing.
Other beneficiaries from such high-quality daycare programs may include state and local government, and more broadly, taxpayers and society at large. Because high quality early childhood programs promote healthy development, they can generate savings by obviating the need for more expensive interventions later in a child’s life. For example, studies show that participation in high-quality early care can help children avoid special education, grade repetition, early parenthood, and incarceration – all outcomes that imply large costs for government and for society. Furthermore, children (over the long term) and parents who participate in such programs are more likely to be employed; thus, revenue from their taxes and enhanced buying power can positively contribute to the economy (The Center for High Impact Philanthropy, 2018). For example, the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs has found that high quality early childhood programs can yield a $4 – $9 dollar return per $1 invested. According to Early Childhood researcher, Larry Schweinhart (2012), a 2009 study of Perry Preschool, a high-quality program for 3-5 year old’s developed in Michigan in the 1960s, estimated a return to society of between about $7 and $12 for each $1 invested.1 It is important to note that different assumptions can shift estimates and that different studies often rely on different assumptions, limiting comparisons across studies and programs. That said, early childhood stands out as a particularly notable area for investment precisely because so many interventions appear to save money in the longer term.
Although the research indicating benefits on early childhood education are promising, there is other data presented by research that is worth mentioning in this paper. Research has shown that children enrolled in Head Start programs benefit by receiving formal education before kindergarten. Likewise, it was shown that children enrolled in Head Start programs learned quicker than children not enrolled in these programs. In an interview with Kandace Buckner, the Educational Director of Innovators Prep Academy, a local early childhood program, children who attend early childhood programs enter kindergarten with a stronger “sense of self” and are acclimated to the structure of school. These skills are essential for boosting children who are disadvantaged (personal communication, October 12, 2018).
Critics of pre-kindergarten education claim the differences between children enrolled in preschool programs and children not receiving formal education are only discernible during kindergarten, first, and second grade. During subsequent years, children who’ve not received formal education prior to kindergarten test at the same level and behave like their peers with pre-kindergarten formal education. Therefore, Head Start children may be at an advantage for a couple of years, but after that, their classmates perform at similar levels. Another major problem with Head Start programs is that children qualifying for these programs usually come from families living below poverty-line, so these programs are not readily available for children from all backgrounds. However, children can receive formal education in other ways other than Head Start programs, including daycare and parents teaching their young children. Even though children in daycare programs can develop intellectually, children benefit most when parents stay at home with their children and educate them.
Personally, the conclusions I drew from the research studied about early childhood education are that individuals and societies greatly benefit, in terms of social, economic, and other benefits, from it. With greater emphasis placed on early education is one strategy to alleviate substance abuse and criminal behavior that plagues many adolescents and young adults. The economic benefits, for example, can be immense when emphasis is placed on early childhood education.
Improving the pre-kindergarten education of children is one step that can be taken to improve a society economically and socially. It has been shown that children should begin to receive education before kindergarten since children experience substantial brain development during these early years.
While parents, educators and even politicians have become active participants in the advocacy for early childhood education, much still needs to be done to address the issues and eventually reap the benefits discussed in this paper. Contemporary research on the benefits of early childhood education have brought to light how it impacts the achievement gap, reduces youth involvement in crime and presents a more than adequate return on investment for communities.
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