Report Finds Benefit to Quality Preschool Programs

TEMPE, Ariz and BOULDER, Colo. (Sept. 10, 2008)— Amid a contentious debate over the benefit of preschool programs, a new policy brief, Preschool Education and Its Lasting Effects: Research and Policy Implications examines what researchers currently know about the potential of those programs to bring about positive change. It finds that preschool can strongly benefit children’s learning and development. But the brief also finds that the quality of programs varies dramatically and that increased public investment in preschool education should be focused on program designs that have been demonstrated to be highly effective.

The policy brief is written by W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It was released today by the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University.

Preschool programs have become increasingly common over the last several decades, with states such as Oklahoma taking the lead. Recommendations for or against various forms of universal, publicly funded preschool have emerged in the current presidential campaign. For example, Barack Obama is proposing grants to encourage states to institute universal, voluntary preschool programs, while John McCain’s campaign has called for a more limited federal role, providing information and databases to help parents choose a preschool education program.

Barnett’s brief offers a solid research foundation upon which this policy debate can proceed.

Barnett’s brief offers both warnings and hope. He explains that well-designed preschool programs have been shown to produce long-term improvements in school success—raising students’ achievement test scores, reducing the rates of students being retained in grade, reducing the assignment of students to special education programs, and raising student educational attainment. He also finds that these well-designed programs are extraordinarily cost effective, with their long-term payoffs far exceeding their costs.

The strongest evidence suggests that children from all socioeconomic backgrounds reap long-term benefits from preschool, Barnett says. And he notes that the strongest benefits are received by economically disadvantaged children.

However, Barnett also warns that current public policies for child care, Head Start, and state pre-Kindergarten programs offer no assurance that American children will attend such highly effective preschool programs. Some attend no preschool and others attend educationally weak programs. Middle-income children often have the least access to pre-school, while many children in poverty may lack preschool as well.

Although there are exceptions, highly effective preschool programs are generally characterized by small class sizes and the use of well-educated, adequately paid teachers, and Barnett recommends that policymakers stick with those approaches. Preschool teachers should undergo intensive supervision and coaching and “should be involved in a continuous improvement process for teaching and learning.” Preschool programs also should regularly monitor children’s learning and development.

Because preschool programs vary so much in quality, Barnett counsels against simply raising child care subsidies. Instead, he recommends greater public investment in effective preschool education programs, with a focus on state and local pre-K programs with high standards, which have been found to be the most effective. Such programs “need not be provided by public schools,” he notes; public, private and Head Start programs all “have produced similar results when operating with the same resources and standards as part of the same state pre-K program.”

Finally, Barnett recommends that because existing results are strongest when children receive “an earlier start and longer duration” for preschool education, disadvantaged children under four who are likely to benefit most should get first priority in policies to expand access to such programs.

Find Steve Barnett’s report, Preschool Education and Its Lasting Effects: Research and Policy Implications on the web at:

W. Steven Barnett, Professor and Director
National Institute for Early Education Research
Rutgers University
(732) 932-4350

Kevin Welner, Professor and Director
Education and the Public Interest Center
University of Colorado at Boulder
(303) 492-8370


The National Institute for Early Education Research (, a unit of the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, supports early childhood education policy by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research. NIEER is supported through grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts and others.

The Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at Arizona State University collaborate to produce policy briefs and think tank reviews. Our goal is to promote well-informed democratic deliberation about education policy by providing academic as well as non-academic audiences with useful information and high quality analyses.

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