We have heard educators and politicians alike tout the virtues of early childhood education, and how it prepares kids for a lifetime of learning. With one of my own children in preschool and another one headed there shortly, I’m always interested in the evidence on this stage learning. Do activities like playing with blocks and paints, sitting through circle time and learning to share really impact a child for the rest of his life?
So I was fascinated to follow a series of reports on National Public Radio that detail some interesting evidence about preschool programs. While these reports didn’t include a systematic review, they did include several different longitudinal studies that make an interesting case about the importance of preschool.
On the show This American Life, host Ira Glass talks with a range of experts – a journalist, an Nobel-prize winning economist and a pediatrician – about the evidence on what researchers call “non-cognitive skills” like self-discipline, curiosity and paying attention.
One of the leading experts in this field is an economist at the University of Chicago named James Heckman. His work has found that these soft skills are essential in succeeding in school, securing a good job, and even building a successful marriage. Heckman found that children learn these skills in preschool.
One well-known longitudinal study followed a group of low-income 3- and 4-year-olds in Ypsilanti, MichiganThese children were randomly assigned to attend preschool five days a week, or not attend any preschool. After preschool, all of the children went to the Ypsilanti public school system.
The study found that children who attend preschool were more successful adults. They were half as likely to be arrested and earned 50 percent more in salary. Girls who attended preschool were 50 percent more likely to have a savings account and 20 percent more likely to have a car.
Another similar project conducted in North Carolina found that comparable results: Individuals who had attended preschool as children were four times more likely to have earned college degrees, less likely to use public assistance, and more likely to delay child-bearing.
There is more evidence too. NPR’s Planet Money aired a show earlier this year demonstrating further evidence about the benefits of preschool. And researchers at the University of Texas in Austin found that preschool reduces the inequalities in early academic achievement.
The take-home message seems to be: Preschool matters!