The Long-Term Benefits of Early Learning

By Lawrence Hardy

The evidence is overwhelming: Providing quality preschool for disadvantaged children is a crucial step -- perhaps the crucial step -- in raising graduation rates, closing the achievement gap, and improving the nation’s long-term economic health.

At age 3, a child of professional parents hears about 11 million words a year; a family on welfare hears just 3 million. By as early as nine months, evidence of an achievement gap is present, and by the start of kindergarten the vocabulary gap is up to 15,000 words -- 20,000 words for high-income children, 5,000 for those from low-income households.

But parental income isn’t necessarily destiny: Early learning can do much to close this deficit. Recent research shows that “most, if not all, of the achievement gap found at age 5 (at school entry) and at age 8 could be eliminated by an intensive two-year early childhood program for infants and toddlers (age 1-3 years),” according to data compiled by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The societal return on this kind of investment -- in increased tax receipts and reduced use of such things as social services, special education, and correctional institutions -- could be anywhere from $3 to $16 for every dollar invested.

Given these findings, it’s no wonder that government-supported early childhood education has received endorsements from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; 22 governors, who mentioned it in their 2012 “State of the State” addresses; and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who late last year awarded $500 million in Race to the Top Early Learning Grants to nine states.

So the U.S. is now providing quality preschool to a majority of its low-income children and the quality continues to improve, right? Wrong on both counts.

Yes, enrollments have increased at state-supported preschools, but that was barely enough to keep up with population increases -- and the thousands of children falling into poverty.

“You’re just talking about doing less with more kids,” says W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University.

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