Why DeVos should embrace early childhood education

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addresses Education Department staff on her first day on the job in Washington

As Betsy DeVos ascends to the role of secretary of education amidst partisan rancor, she would do well to embrace early childhood education, an issue offering an oasis of bipartisan support. Ninety percent of voters, regardless of party affiliation, endorse quality early childhood education with expanded access and affordability for children from low- and middle-income backgrounds, according to a 2016 national poll by the First Five Years Fund. Early childhood education is a strong investment in our nation’s future, as cost-benefit estimates report societal savings of up to $13 for every dollar spent on quality early childhood programs. But how can we convince policymakers to increase investment in early care and education and improve life outcomes for at-risk children?

The scientific evidence offers clear direction about what works for long-term payoffs in school readiness and life beyond the classroom. Three areas are pivotal to achieving that end:  (i) early access to programs that serve children age 0-3; (ii) working with parents (direct practice of skills and intensive home visiting); and (iii) high quality programs entailing teacher-child interactions that promote higher-order thinking skills, low teacher to child ratios, and ongoing job-embedded professional development. These conclusions are borne out in two broad sets of data: one based on longitudinal studies of parenting and high quality programs starting in infancy and the other based on more recent studies on the impact of preschool attendance on child outcomes.

Longitudinal Studies of Parenting and Care in Infancy

Studies focused on infant care report consistently positive outcomes for children starting in kindergarten and lasting through early adulthood. Thus, early access appears to be a defining dimension for strong outcomes. The highly cited Abecedarian Program, which provided high-quality care starting in infancy and lasting until kindergarten entry, had a parent focus with counseling on child health and development and an advisory board to encourage parent involvement. The Abecedarian Program also had a focus on quality with ideal caregiver-child ratios (1-to-3 for infants and toddlers and 1-to-6 during preschool), and a curriculum focused on children’s language, cognitive, and social emotional development through high quality caregiver-child interactions. The results demonstrated the enormous power of early intervention. Compared to the control group, participants had improved adult health outcomes, lower utilization of special education, less grade retention, more advanced reading and math scores, higher educational attainment, and higher employment rates.

The Infant Health and Development Program and the Nurse Family Partnership both used randomized control trials that provided frequent home visits to high-risk mothers, as well as coaching on parenting skills, family stability, and parent educational attainment from pregnancy through toddlerhood. Both programs stressed the importance of high quality language interactions (back and forth conversations, shared book readings, and rich vocabulary), nutrition (prenatal and beyond), and healthy parenting strategies (feeding and sleeping routines, strategies to deal with misbehavior and so on). The results of these studies were compelling—the Infant Health and Development Program produced higher IQ (overall, verbal, and performance), math achievement, and receptive vocabulary at age 8 compared to the group that did not receive the intervention. Children enrolled in the Nurse Family Partnership showed advantages through high school and into adulthood. They had vastly reduced chances of getting arrested before age 19, fewer sexual partners, less cigarette and alcohol consumption at age 15, fewer incidents of child abuse, mothers who spent less time on welfare, and fewer arrests and convictions, as compared to the control group.

Early Head Start, a federally funded childcare program that serves infants, toddlers, and their parents, indicated long-term benefits such as improved family functioning and coping skills, lower stress, reduced incidents of child abuse, and fewer child welfare encounters. The magnitude of these benefits is larger than typically seen (effect sizes in the 0.3 to 0.6 range) for longitudinal outcomes of interventions restricted to preschoolers. The NICHD Study of Early Care demonstrated that high-quality childcare starting in infancy is linked to higher scores on standardized tests of math and reading achievement through fifth grade, effects that persisted to age 15. At the end of high school, effects of attending higher quality programs during the first five years were evident in class rank, grades, and entrance into more selective colleges. Taken together, these studies offer strong evidence that early access, parenting programs, and high quality promote positive child outcomes.

Impact of Preschool Programs

Studies of preschool attendance provide a second area of strong research on the payoffs of early childhood programs. Here, the high quality piece of the equation becomes particularly important. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, New Jersey, and Boston, pre-kindergarten programs demonstrate impressive outcomes that include positive effects on math scores, grade retention, and chronic absenteeism at the end of grade 8; increased achievement on language arts, literacy, math, and science, as well as decreased grade retention and special education placement at the end of grade 5; and stronger than typical impacts on academic readiness (effect sizes in the 0.4 – 0.6 range) at school entry.

Further, studies like the Chicago Child-Parent Centers and the Perry Preschool Program followed children from preschool through adulthood and showed powerful long-lasting effects. A sampling of the findings suggests that high quality preschool results in fewer years of special education, less grade retention, a higher percentage of high school completion, decreased chance of being arrested or spending time in jail, fewer sexual partners and abortions, higher adult monthly earnings, and less time spent on welfare.

At the same time, programs that relaxed quality standards as they scaled, including the Head Start Impact Study and the more recent Tennessee Pre-K program have outcomes that suffer from fade out effects in which the early benefits dissipate over the course of elementary education. These studies followed thousands of children from preschool enrollment to the end of grade 3 and noted that children in their programs had a meaningful advantage over the control group at kindergarten entry in academic and social emotional skills—an advantage that evaporated by third grade. The findings from these preschool studies sparked the recent American Enterprise Institute piece entitled “Does Preschool Work?” and a Brookings Institution, conference entitled, “Trouble in the land of early education?

Upon closer inspection, however, these pre-K studies suffered from design or quality problems. In the case of the Head Start Impact Study, a serious confounding situation dampened the results. A substantial percentage of the control group were enrolled in Head Start— depending on the year and the cohort anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of the control group actually received the Head Start intervention. With respect to the Tennessee study, observations revealed that 85 percent of classrooms scored lower than “good quality” on the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-R), a widely used measure of quality. Indeed, the Tennessee researchers admit that during scale up of the program “little infrastructure for supporting professional development with teachers or overseeing what they are doing.” It should come as no surprise that we will see muted outcomes when quality is not high. Findings like these underscore why access will not compensate for quality as we set standards for preschool settings.

The Secrets to Success

The data, then, offer a clear pattern of results with direct policy implications. First, they tell us that programs that begin in infancy, include parents, and are high quality will yield lasting advantages for young children and will help set them on positive lifelong trajectories. Second, short of access in the first three years, it is imperative that we pay serious attention to the quality of programs as defined by high quality teacher-child interactions and curricula that encourages children’s active engagement. Research tells us these conditions are facilitated by low child to teacher ratios, well-trained and well-paid teachers, and ongoing job-embedded professional development. The research also provides proof of concept that these aims are scalable on a modest budget (e.g., in Tulsa, New Jersey, and Boston).

As the new administration tackles the minefield of educational reform, we encourage them to consider spending in one area where public opinion and strong evidence converge. Let’s move quickly to endorse programs that start early (0-3), support parents, and are of the highest quality. We know what works.