Every year, tens of millions of parents enroll their children in early childhood education programs. These programs vary widely, with some parents putting their children in religious academies and others receiving the go-ahead to enroll their children in low-income programs such as Head Start. But does early childhood education actually make a difference in terms of educational attainment?
Parents often wonder why young children need to be enrolled in preschool. Some assume their kids are only learning the names of the letters or numbers–concepts they feel they could easily teach on their own. However, a wealth of recent research points to a great need for mental stimulation between the ages of 2 to 5, as this is when children make the greatest gains in learning. For example, toddlers are barely able to put a sentence together, but by the time they enter kindergarten, kids can have long, complicated discussions with adults.
According to a 2007 publication from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, children build more complex skills from the basic, foundational capabilities (often fostered in early development curricula). Children placed in preschool programs are given greater opportunities to develop a wide range of skills, thus better preparing them for the additional challenges that will be presented in kindergarten. And with the ever-increasing push for high test scores, children not enrolled in preschool risk being incredibly far behind from the moment they begin grade school.
Several long-term studies concerning the impact of preschool on graduation rates have been published in the last few decades. The bulk of the research shows that early childhood education is an excellent investment, particularly among students growing up in low-income areas. A great example of this can be seen in the HighScope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40, in which 123 at-risk African Americans were followed beginning at the age of three and continuing until they hit forty years of age. The results of this study were striking — participants having attended preschool had graduation rates averaging nearly 80 percent, while the graduation rate for those not enrolled in preschool was only 60 percent. Enrollment in early childhood education also impacted income later in life, with preschool attendees far more likely to earn annual incomes exceeding $20,000.
While achieving high graduation rates is a worthy goal in and of itself, it is certainly not the only positive outcome that arises from enrolling children in preschool. The National Education Association (NEA) lists several studies that show the vast benefits of early childhood education, lower rates of teenage pregnancy, reduced juvenile delinquency, better scores on standardized tests, a greater ability to move through the grades without having to repeat any and, of course, greater levels of employment and higher wages in adulthood.
The evidence makes in clear: early childhood education is a worthwhile investment. Parents able to enroll their children in preschool should definitely do so, as it provides their kids a significant step up in life. And society needs to place a greater emphasis on funding programs such as Head Start, for these could potentially bring millions of low-income kids up into the middle class.