Research News

Ready for School, Ready for Life

IPR researchers, congressmen highlight early childhood education at D.C. event


prb ready for school
U.S. Representative Dan Lipinski (D-3rd) of Illinois welcomes participants to the research briefing with IPR experts.

In tracking the education outcomes of more than 1 million Florida children over 10 years, IPR Director David Figlio, an education economist, has captured what is at stake for children not in preschool or in poor quality ones: Children who start behind in kindergarten stay behind—whether they come from well-off or poor families.

“If you aren’t reading at grade level in third grade, you’re unlikely to catch up,” Figlio said in prefacing a May 17 IPR policy research briefing on Capitol Hill.

Early education is an issue on lawmakers’ minds: President Barack Obama has proposed making preschool universal, and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s new antipoverty plan emphasizes ways to strengthen early childhood development. 

Figlio’s remarks set the stage for “Ready for School, Ready for Life,” where four IPR experts addressed key issues of early education, including cost effectiveness and quality, before more than 60 researchers, nonprofit leaders, and congressional staffers.

U.S. Representatives Bob Dold (R-10th) and Dan Lipinski (D-3rd) of Illinois, who cosponsored the event, both stopped by to welcome participants and address the topic.

“It’s important that we have good research when we’re making public policy, especially when we’re talking about early childhood education,” Lipinski said.

In his remarks, Dold called early childhood education “critical for setting our kids up for success in school, the economy, and ultimately our communities.”

Preschool Quality, Cost, and Program Design

With calls for “preschool for all” and only limited dollars to spend, how should policymakers go about designing preschool programs?

According to IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, “preschools can have extremely high payoffs,” but these depend on the quality of the learning environment and on the counterfactual, or what the child would be doing if not enrolled in preschool.

She cited the example of the federally funded Perry Preschool Project, which ran from 1962–67. It produced large, positive effects, including an $8 return on investment for every $1 spent on the program, as calculated by Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago.

But expanding preschool access today is more complex, Schanzenbach said, and expansions to the federal Head Start preschool program have met with mixed success. Why? Schanzenbach explained that for children at the low end of the SES spectrum, attending Head Start was more likely an improvement over what they would be doing otherwise. On the other hand, their higher-SES peers could actually lose out by switching from a higher-quality program to the free Head Start option.

This discrepancy also has important cost considerations: As higher-SES families switch from paying for private schools to enrolling in publicly funded preschools, the costs of providing universal preschool rise.

In considering the implications for preschool program design, Schanzenbach cited her research, concluding that “…near-universal attendance is probably the right policy goal, but free-for-all is probably not the right policy goal.” Rather, a better policy design could entail high-SES families “sharing the costs” of high-quality education, she said.

Measuring Preschool Quality

“‘Preschool ‘quality’ has become somewhat of a buzzword,” said Terri Sabol, a developmental psychologist and IPR associate. But what exactly does “high-quality” preschool mean? 

Sabol enumerated two ways to think about quality: classrooms’ structural features, which comprise issues of health and safety, class size, staff qualifications, and curriculum or “process-oriented measures,” such as class environments and teacher-child interactions.

Today, states mainly use the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), as their primary tool for gauging quality. The QRIS rates preschools on a number of key factors determined by each state, including both structural and process-oriented elements.

The problem with such systems, Sabol explained, is that their rollout has “far outpaced the evidence.”  

To “get under the hood” of understanding high-quality preschool, Sabol and her colleagues tested whether current QRIS ratings were linked to better learning outcomes.

They uncovered that structural improvements such as lower staff-child ratios and teachers with more education did not lead to added student benefits. What did matter, however, were class environment and teacher-child interactions.

Sabol pointed out that these results are key for not only defining preschool quality and scaling up high-quality programs, but also for training teachers to engage in high-quality, high-impact interactions with their preschoolers.

A Two-Generation Approach 

In addition to the clear impact that quality programs can have on children, IPR developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale offers a two-generation approach that expands the policy focus to include parents.

Since educational opportunities for parents and children often exist in “different silos, different funding streams, and different places in the community,” she explained, “the idea is to link early childhood education with education and job training for parents simultaneously.”

Testing the two-generation framework, Chase-Lansdale and her colleagues found that parents with a child randomly assigned to Head Start were 9 percent more likely to improve their own education. This effect was especially strong for certain groups: 23 percent of parents with some college increased their education, and 15 percent of African American parents increased their education relative to those whose children were not enrolled in Head Start.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Chase-Lansdale continues to examine the short- and long-term impact of CareerAdvance®, a model two-generation program that provides parents of preschoolers who enroll with free tuition to community colleges, career coaching, and peer-group support.

Early results show that 74 percent of CareerAdvance parents earned a certification and left the program with better job prospects, compared with a 27 percent success rate for similar parents not enrolled in CareerAdvance.

Chase-Lansdale’s presentation, like those throughout the event, stressed the importance of early intervention.

“If we’re starting to think about this in seventh, eighth, or tenth grade, we’re starting too late,” Figlio concluded.

IPR Director David Figlio is Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy; Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is associate professor of economics and an IPR fellow; Terri Sabol is assistant professor of human development and social policy and an IPR associate; Lindsay Chase-Lansdale is Frances Willard Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, Associate Provost for Faculty, and an IPR fellow.