The Investment in Early Childhood Education and the Myth of the Fade-Out

The Investment in Early Childhood Education and the Myth of the Fade-OutLast month, when the President announced his call for universal access to Pre-K, we were elated. We firmly believe that high quality early childhood education can have a large and lasting impact on the educational potential of students, regardless of socioeconomic background. Of course there are always post-announcement debates, and one of the notions that has been getting some media attention is that of the “fade-out” of high-quality preschool programs by the third grade.

Refuting this notion, W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, recently wrote a report – Getting the Facts Right on Pre-K and the President’s Pre-K Proposal – in which he summarized:

Public policy is best advanced based on impartial analysis of all the available evidence. The Obama administration’s new universal Pre-K proposal comports favorably with our full review of the evidence. Opponents’ attacks have been based on selected studies considered in isolation and even then, misinterpreted.

Many of the studies concerning preschool fade-out are based around Head Start and attached mainly to the Head Start Impact Study, which shows some evidence that the gains made by children tend to fade by the end of second grade. But not all Pre-K gains fade out. In fact, the President’s claim that “every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on” is based on the Chicago Longitudinal Study, which reported a $7.14 to $1 benefit-cost ratio. Some other research, such as the Perry Preschool Program study, has shown returns more in the order of a $16 to $1 benefit-cost ratio.

As Sara Mead blogged recently at Ed Week about the Myths of Pre-K Evidence:

We can look, again, at the Chicago Longitudinal Study, which found evidence of positive long-term impacts on school achievement at age 14, special education placement, grade retention, and high school completion. And we can look at studies of state-funded pre-k programs in Texas and New Jersey that find children in these programs make gains relative to nonparticipants that last at least into the early elementary grades. All that suggests that pre-k results by no means have to “fade out.”

The available body of research makes it difficult to argue that early childhood education is not worth the investment. Certainly, however, it’s important to note that the quality of this education matters, as does the quality of the programs that students enter afterwards. Underfunded public programs do not fare as well as smaller-scale private initiatives, so in all cases, there does need to be a commitment to delivering a rigorous preschool curriculum in line with best practices. As Barnett’s report suggests:

When all the evidence is considered it is found that large-scale public programs have produced meaningful long-term gains for children and not just disadvantaged children. Large gains depend on high-quality Pre-K. Such programs can produce high rates of return to public investment.

This is one investment we should all be willing to make.