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The big news in New York City this week is that Mayor Bill de Blasio got the money he was looking for to fund universal pre-kindergarten in the city. It’s also a national story, though, because many states and cities across the country, egged on by an Obama administration initiative, have been pushing for more early childhood education, particularly for the most disadvantaged children.

Universal pre-k has been rolled out elsewhere, but New York City, as the biggest school system in the U.S. with a highly diverse student population, will provide an important testing ground for the strategy of giving every 4-year-old an early start in school. The selling point of universal pre-k is that it’s for everyone, but the goal for most advocates is to even the playing field for disadvantaged students and close the achievement gap. (In New York, white and Asian students are disproportionately represented in the city’s existing public pre-k classrooms.)

Little Angels Day Care in Mississippi. (Photo: Kim Palmer)
Little Angels Day Care in Mississippi. (Photo: Kim Palmer)

Now that the political hurdles have been mounted and it’s happening, the next question is, will it work?

The short answer is yes, according to decades of research. But there are many caveats. The Hechinger Report has been covering what works and what doesn’t in early education for years. Here are some highlights:

  • The research most often cited about the effects of pre-k and preschool are based on intensive and very expensive programs that targeted low-income families, often involving the parents nearly as much as the children in the educational process. Here’s a list of the main studies.
  • The research is more mixed when it comes to “regular” pre-kindergarten programs. Critics often point to a major study of Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income children, which found that the benefits that children accrued in Head Start tended to fade away in comparison to children who didn’t attend. But Head Start supporters point out that the comparison children were often enrolled in other preschool programs, making the conclusion that Head Start didn’t work unfair. In New Jersey, a major effort to provide pre-kindergarten in low-income districts did see benefits.
  • The fade-out effect has dogged other public pre-k programs, too, though. That’s why early education advocates launched a new effort known as “pre-k to three,” which was meant to maintain the gains seen by 3- and 4-year-olds in good preschool programs as they progress in school to the third grade. There’s not a lot of research suggesting this strategy works yet, though, partly because funding such efforts is difficult during tough budget times.
  • It may seem like an obvious point, but the key to making sure pre-kindergarten works is making sure it’s high-quality, advocates say. This is easier said than done, as we’ve reported in the past. Good early education is often expensive and hard to replicate. High-quality often means better paid and better trained teachers. And there’s a tightrope to be walked between simply baby-sitting children and providing a fun, playful learning environment that’s not too rigid.
  • The other issue is getting parents on board. Immigrant parents have traditionally been harder to reach, and half-day programs are often little use to working parents.
  • What does seem clear to many advocates is that starting with pre-kindergarten is probably not enough. The achievement gap between low-income and minority children is already well established by kindergarten. Home-visiting programs and campaigns to get parents to speak more with their infants and toddlers begin addressing the achievement gap before it has time to grow.

Without efforts to reach children and families before they set foot in school, it’s tough even for even intensive pre-kindergarten programs to make a difference. But the good news for New York City is that places like New Jersey and high-quality programs like Educare have shown it’s not impossible.

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