E is for Elementary: The Impacts of Early Education

Thursday, September 24, 2015 -- Madison Michell

During the early years of life, critical brain and social development are happening each and every day. Before students even begin kindergarten, the brain forms as many as 700 neural connections every second. These are the connections that build brain architecture—the foundation upon which all later learning, behavior, and health depend.

So, what are we doing to provide children with valuable educational experiences throughout these formative years? Let’s take a look at three essential questions about the impact and status of early childhood education.

How critical is early childhood education?

High-quality, publically funded pre-K has been the focus of heightened national, state, and local attention for a number of years now. Research over the last five decades has suggested that a $1 investment in quality preschool programs saves taxpayers more than $7 in costs associated with incarceration, health services, welfare, and treatment for substance abuse. However, fewer than half of U.S. children currently attend preschool.

Despite the lasting social and economic benefits often cited, additional studies suggest that the gains made in preschool become negligible by the time a student reaches 1st or 2nd grade. Another stumbling block for preschool education is a lack of state funding, which often leaves many educational institutions without quality programs. In the absence of universal preschool accessibility, the lowest-income students suffer the most. By the time at-risk children get to kindergarten, many are already behind in vocabulary development, pre-literacy skills, and pre-math skills. They are also more likely to have problems with behavior and impulse control.

With studies supporting both sides of this issue, there’s no doubt it will continue to be a topic of much debate throughout the 2016 election season. Want to learn more about the importance of early childhood education? Check out this infographic Chicago Children’s Museum on the Perks of Preschool.

Where is the academic focus in elementary education?

In today’s standards-driven educational system, when students cross the threshold into kindergarten, more rigorous academic demands quickly take precedent over developmental skills. This is at odds with the traditional role of this entry-level elementary grade; the testing experiences, pressures, and other expectations common in today’s kindergarten classrooms weren’t in place just 15 years ago. Take a look at these findings from  this working paper by Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem, ”Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?”:

  • In 1998, 30 percent of teachers indicated that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that figure was 80 percent.
  • In 1998, 29 percent of teachers thought that parents should make sure their children know the alphabet before kindergarten. In 2010, that number rose to 62 percent.
  • In 1998, 54 percent of teachers said their class had music three or more times a week, and 51 percent said they had art three or more times per week. Those figures fell to 26 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in 2010.

In many cases, where socialization and acclimation to school routines were once the measures of kindergarten success, they are no more. With that being said, a similar argument can be made that developments in early-childhood education are driving some of the changes in kindergarten teachers’ beliefs and practices.

Much of the emphasis on the more rigorous grade-level expectations is also tied to the pressure to hit the mark on third-grade state reading tests. Studies have shown that children who read significantly below grade level by 3rd grade continue to struggle in school and eventually face a much higher likelihood of dropping out altogether.

The states are divided, however, as to how they are measuring and responding to less than satisfactory reading scores. The full policy breakdown by state is illustrated in this Education Commission of the States report. Here are some of the highlights:

  • 33 states plus the District of Columbia require or recommend that districts offer some type of intervention or remediation for struggling readers between preschool to 3rd grade.
  • 16 states plus the District of Columbia require the retention of 3rd grade students who do not meet grade-level expectations in reading.
  • 36 states plus the District of Columbia require a reading assessment in a least one grade, pre-K through 3rd grade, with the primary purpose to identify reading deficiencies.

No matter what reading policies the different states have, all are in agreement on the importance of reaching reading milestones throughout the early grades.

What is the current status of funding in early education?

A number of federal programs, as well as state and local initiatives, are in place to support early childhood and early education services. The long list of government early education programs is explored in detail in this article, but a few notable programs stand out amongst the crowd:

  • Head Start

Celebrating 50 years in 2015, Head Start was founded during the War on Poverty in 1965 and remains a landmark for providing underprivileged children with access to preschool and improving program quality. While Head Start has touched more than 31 million young children in its long history, congressionally mandated studies are now painting a different picture around its effectiveness. Stricter accountability and performance measures now play a significant role in the competition for funds each year. Read more about Head Start’s genesis and evolution.

  • Race to the Top, Early Learning Challenge

This grant competition is funded under the Obama administration and focuses on improving early learning and development programs for young children through innovative measures. It has contributed roughly $1 billion in grants thus far, issuing awards to 20 states that are leading the way with ambitious plans for educational reform.

  • Oklahoma’s state-funded universal preschool program

This state-funded initiative has offered all four-year-olds in Oklahoma the ability to attend universal public pre-K programs since 1998. Early childhood proponents often uphold Oklahoma’s program as the standard to which all states should ascribe.

As is true for the education landscape as a whole, funding is out there for early learning programs, and it is making a difference. However, finding and securing these funding sources take creativity and legwork. If you’re in the process of searching out new funding sources for your district, school, or classroom, take a look at our blog post on Common Sense Grant Writing Tips.

The answers to these three questions make it clear—early learning is absolutely key to later academic success, and educators and policymakers alike are becoming more and more aware of that fact. Are you working to build, expand, or incorporate innovative new methods in programming for your youngest learners? Explore Edmentum’s engaging online solutions for foundational learning, Reading Eggs & Reading Eggspress and EducationCity!