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Amy Traub

Prizing Preschool

At nursery school this week, my son watched caterpillars transforming into butterflies, learned a new song, practiced recognizing the letters in his classmates’ names, and tried out the flour sifter as he baked cookies with a visiting parent. Apparently, he was also absorbing more subtle lessons and habits of mind that will stay with him through adolescence and perhaps beyond. According to a new study tracking 1,364 young people over 15 years, the impact of quality daycare and preschool programs lasts well into adolescence, significantly boosting academic performance in the high school years. Previous research has also shown benefits from early childhood education, but this study is the first to document such long-term effects.

Now the bad news: as budget crises continue to engulf the nation’s states and cities, America’s public preschool programs are on the chopping block. A new assessment of public preschool programs by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University finds that even as states are increasingly recognizing the importance of early education, budget cuts are beginning to reduce access. In nine states the percentage of children enrolled in public preschool fell in 2009, while a dozen states have cut or are planning to cut additional funding in the coming years. Twelve states still do not fund preschool programs at all. In many state programs, teacher quality does not meet accepted benchmarks.

One consistent bright spot in the preschool picture is the state of Oklahoma, which “remains the only state where almost every child had the opportunity to attend a quality preschool education program at age 4,” according to the Rutgers study. (For more on how a this Midwestern state established and maintained a high-quality, broadly accessible program check out the video and transcript from DMI’s 2006 event exploring the successful policy.)

For those of us not living in the Great Plains, the picture is bleaker. “We need to get the recession babies on a progression path so they don't carry the scars for a lifetime," explains Rutgers researcher W. Steven Barnett. He expresses hope that President Obama will follow through on campaign promises to guarantee preschool access to American children. As a parent and a citizen, I’m hoping too.

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Posted at 12:51 PM, May 14, 2010 in Education
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