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Early Childhood Education Pays Off

September 23, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

A report released this month reinforces the importance of early childhood education.

In "Preschool Education and Its Lasting Effects," W. Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University argues that pre-kindergarten education helps children become better students and more well-adjusted adults.

It's an argument that resonates with Minnesota teachers and policy makers. The gold standard for early education research was produced in 2003 by Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank economists Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald who found that early education can yield as much as a 16 percent annual return to taxpayers in lower special-education costs, less criminality and social services, and more taxpayers.

Barnett's conclusions - reached though a review of existing literature -- expanded on that report. In addition to finding that well-designed preschool education programs lead to higher test scores, lower rates of grade repetition, and higher educational attainment, he discovered that they can help economically disadvantaged children reap long-term benefits.

Mary Anne Cogelow needs no convincing. As a retired Early Childhood and Family Education teacher in St. Paul, her 37 years working with children and parents has shown her the value of early childhood education not only in academics but in "raising children who are also emotionally intelligent, compassionate, morally sound and ready for citizenship," she said.

Barnett also found that many preschool programs are educationally weak and concluded that increasing child care subsidies under current federal and state policies is unlikely to produce improvements in children's learning and development.

Barnett makes five recommendations for early education policy:

  • Programs should have small class sizes and well-educated teachers with adequate pay;
  • Teachers should receive intensive supervision, coaching, and continuous improvement;
  • Preschools should regularly assess children's learning and development to monitor how well they are accomplishing their goals;
  • Preschools should develop the whole child, including social and emotional development and self-regulation;
  • Policies expanding access to children under age four should prioritize disadvantaged children. More broadly, policy should support child development from birth to age five and beyond.

Todd Otis, president of Ready 4 K, a Minnesota organization that promotes programs that prepare children for kindergarten, said Barnett's recommendations were on target.

Child assessments are appropriate, he said, as long as they simply identify problems for intervention and are not high-stakes testing.

He also said developing programs for the whole child, rather than focusing solely on academic progress, makes a lot of sense.

"Social and emotional control is the most important thing a student brings to the kindergarten classroom," he said. "If you can't keep in control, then you can't learn."

The focus on disadvantaged children, along with policies for very young children, is also on the mark, Cogelow said. Barnett's report shows that the earlier children are exposed to quality childhood education, the more they are ready for school.

"The first three years are so crucial," Cogelow said. "if you start at age four, you're already playing catch-up."

One product of Rolnick and Grunewald's work is the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, which raises money to invest in early learning initiatives, pilot-program scholarships and parent involvement efforts.

In August, MELF launched Parent Aware, a program that evaluates child care centers, preschools and home sites with a one- to four-star rating to let parents know how well they prepare children for school. The service is now being tested in St. Paul, North Minneapolis, Wayzata and Blue Earth/Nicollet counties.

To earn the ratings, providers must meet goals that are similar to Barnett's recommendations, including staff experience and qualifications, adult-child interactions and the progress of children in the program. Parents can then choose their service among the programs

It's no surprise that Parent Aware's goals are similar to those found in Barnett's paper. His study, along with the goals of programs like Head Start and ECFE and groups like Ready 4 K, shows that the benefits of quality early childhood education are well known and attainable. The job now is to make them available to more Minnesotans.

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