Onboard The Early Childhood Express Train, But Let’s Shift Tracks

Our guest author today is Emma Gulley, a preschool teacher and current Master’s student at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, where she studies early childhood language acquisition.

Government-funded early childhood education works. It works for students as they learn academic as well as social-emotional skills. It works for low income and middle class families, who can leave their children in trusted and closely monitored learning environments, rather than in less regulated day care arrangements. It works for school districts that can now, with effective early childhood education in place, avoid expensive early intervention programs, since more students are arriving at school “ready to learn.”

And it works for the United States broadly, since, according to a recent White House press release, investments in high quality childhood education provide benefits to society of about $8.60 for every $1.00 spent. Why is it, then, that 30 percent of Americans do not favor using federal funds to expand universal preschool? Why do only 39 percent consider preschool to be extremely important, while 69 percent think high school is extremely important?

If we want increased support for federal funding of early childhood education we need to provide more clarity regarding: A) what actually happens in the early childhood classroom; B) what improved school readiness means for students’ future success; and C) how that $8.60 benefit is calculated and what constitutes those long-term benefits to society. That is to say, abstract statistics are powerful, but they may not be sufficient or salient enough to convince everybody that early childhood education is about more than just finger paint.

A: What Happens in the Early Childhood Classroom?

Yes, preschool students do indeed dress up, build towers with blocks, and squeeze glitter glue onto construction paper, reveling in the sticky residue it leaves on their fingers. But that is not all that happens in preschools, and it is not the case that those moments are not rich, complex learning opportunities. One problem is the common misconception that learning doesn’t happen in these moments of play—indeed, that learning only happens when children are “done” playing. Skeptics who think this must wonder, “How is government-funded preschool any different from government-funded childcare or camp?” We must find a compelling way to show that, when children sing “There Was A Farmer Who Had A Dog (Bingo),” yes, they are having fun, playing cooperatively with peers, and following directions, but they are also learning to identify, predict, and sound out letters—they are developing phonological awareness and learning about how sounds, letters, and meaning intersect.

The preschooler who has a strong sense of phonemic awareness and of the alphabet—indeed, the preschooler who sang Bingo—is more likely to be the first or second grader reading on grade level. Conversely, the preschooler who did not have this exposure is more likely to be the preschooler who falls behind his/her peers. It's not so much that singing Bingo several mornings a week in preschool directly raised Johnny’s ninth grade math score. But the behavioral and academic skills that his teachers began to instill in Johnny—those regarding turn taking, phonemic awareness, letter identification, nuances in language, rhythm and rhymes—set him up to find success as a confident, and curious Kindergartener. And this Kindergartner has a better chance of being a successful first grader, who in turn has a better chance of being more successful in second grade, and so on.

B: What Does Improved School Readiness Really Mean?

Despite the importance of early literacy skills to a child’s trajectory as a student, the socio-emotional skills he or she learns in preschool may be the most important aspect of school readiness (Ashiabi 2005). In preschool, we learn to follow rules, take turns, learn from peers we didn’t grow up with, and resolve conflicts while respecting one another. The student, then, who enters first grade “emotionally school-ready” is a student who’s more ready to learn academic skills.

That student’s teacher can spend less time teaching behavior and more time teaching sophisticated content, a luxury she would not have had if her students were not previously in effective preschool programs. This increased time for teaching content rather than behavior continues to give students an academic advantage as they advance through school. This emphasis on the socio-emotional dimension should not be interpreted to suggest that curriculum and background knowledge are not important aspects of the preschool experience. Indeed, more preschool directors would do well to turn February into "Oceanography Month" or "Volcano Month," rather than "Valentine’s Craft Month," as it often sadly turns into, especially since the word gap is about more than just words.

C: Economics Projections and Early Childhood

Consideration of a child’s general school trajectory should also involve looking at the effects of preschool on that person’s later earning potential, livelihood, and quality of life, as well as the repercussions of these outcomes from a national, economic perspective.

The frequently-cited Perry Preschool Program found that 84 percent of the female students enrolled in their preschool graduated from high school, compared to only 32 percent of their peers who were not enrolled. Similarly, a Wilder Research Study found that investing in just one child's Kindergarten readiness in the City of Detroit has a predicted return of $100,000 over the life of that child, due to savings on remedial education and criminal justice programs.

Yes, economists and statisticians can make sense of these numbers, and these statistics have enlisted increased support for childhood education. Abstract statistics, however, may lead us to develop an excessively transactional view of early childhood education. These studies, while convincing for some audiences, are inherently removed from the reality of early childhood education—the spilled milk on the linoleum table, the moments of wonder surrounding a caterpillar chrysalis, the well-worn spine of an Eric Carle hardcover. They perpetuate the notion that preschool is only important because of its future impact, when in reality it is also important because of the environment it offers children in the moment. Preschool matters because it sets children up for success in Kindergarten and beyond, including after high school graduation. And it also matters because it is important that children associate school with fun and exploration and with feeling loved, responded to, and treasured.

If we want more Americans to understand the importance of early childhood education, in addition to, perhaps, considering abstract statistics about the returns of universal pre-K, we need also to spend time offering the average individual more concrete and vivid details about how learning happens in the early childhood classroom, and how it stays with children in the long run. Perhaps one day we will live in a society where early childhood education is important, not just because of increased performance on future standardized tests, greater earning potential, or lower incarceration rates, but also because of what it accomplishes in the moment: Allowing children to feel joy, intellectually and emotionally engaged, and treasured on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps effective early childhood education is a start towards that future.