Access to Public Preschool Matters

The benefits of preschool are too significant and numerous to ignore. America’s hope for a bright and vibrant future depends on investing in the education of its youngest population today.

First lady Michelle Obama dances with a preschool class at Savoy Elementary School in Washington. The Savoy School was one of eight schools selected last year for the Turnaround Arts Initiative, which aims to improve low-performing schools. (AP/Evan Vucci)
First lady Michelle Obama dances with a preschool class at Savoy Elementary School in Washington. The Savoy School was one of eight schools selected last year for the Turnaround Arts Initiative, which aims to improve low-performing schools. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Preschool is essential to school readiness and can significantly impact a child’s chance of reading at grade level, of graduating high school, and of obtaining the necessary skills to be college and career ready. Yet today too many children do not have access to high-quality, publicly funded preschool, which means they arrive at kindergarten classroom doors without the skills they need to succeed. By letting this situation persist we are allowing these children to start the life race two steps behind.

President Barack Obama has put forth a bold and ambitious plan to significantly expand access to high-quality preschool for low- and moderate-income children and to provide incentives to expand access for children from middle-income families. The plan would establish a state-federal partnership that allows states to expand, improve, or create preschool programs.

Across the country, existing large-scale preschool programs are already succeeding at improving school readiness for children from a range of backgrounds. These programs have demonstrated the important benefits that access to state preschool can have for all children, as well as the diverse nature of these benefits, ranging from academic to social to emotional impacts. These demonstrated impacts clearly show that a major federal investment in state preschool programs is both smart and necessary for the country to ensure that the next generation will be prepared to compete in the increasingly global economy.

This column looks at impacts of large-scale public preschool programs in Georgia, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and the city of Boston.

Everyone benefits from preschool

Across the country, children from low-income families—the children most at risk in our society—have seen large gains in academic achievement from attending preschool. Researchers at Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, have found that children in New Jersey’s Abbott preschool program—so named for the state Supreme Court decision requiring preschool in economically disadvantaged school districts—have seen demonstrated increases in achievement in language arts, literacy, math, and science—gains that were sustained through fourth and fifth grade. According to Georgetown Professor William Gormley’s presentation to Child Care Aware, a leading voice for child care, on April 11, poor children who qualified for the federally subsidized free lunch program and who were enrolled in Oklahoma’s preschool program in Tulsa saw gains equivalent to 11 months in prereading, 8 months in prewriting, and 5 months in premath skills. Professor Gormley also found that Tulsa children who qualified for the federal reduced-price lunch—children from families below 185 percent of the poverty line—saw gains equivalent to 10 months in prereading, 6 months in prewriting, and 6 months in premath skills.

Studies show that children from middle-class families also benefit from preschool. According to the same presentation by Professor Gormley, children in Tulsa who did not meet the income-eligibility requirements for the free or reduced-price lunch program still saw gains from attending preschool equivalent to seven months in prereading, four months in prewriting, and four months in premath skills. Boston’s program is open to all children regardless of income, and Harvard researchers found a relationship between program participation and improved school readiness for all attendees, with increases in cognitive development, language, literacy, math, and mental skills such as attention, problem solving, and inhibition.

Preschool attendance has also been associated with benefits for English-language learners and for students of color. In Georgia Spanish-speaking children experienced significant growth in both English and Spanish domains, including in language, literacy, and math skills. In Texas researchers at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research found that students with limited English proficiency saw substantially meaningful increases in scores on the math and reading portions of the third grade Texas state assessment. In the same Texas study, attending preschool was also found to relate to a 40 percent reduction in grade retention for limited-English-proficient students.

Professor Gormley’s presentation shows that Hispanic students in Tulsa’s program saw significant gains in prereading, prewriting, and premath skills of 11 months, 4 months, and 6 months, respectively. Hispanic students who primarily spoke Spanish at home saw the greatest benefits. African American students in Tulsa’s program also saw substantial gains—9 months in prereading, 10 months in prewriting, and 5 months in premath.

Finally, children with special needs also benefit from access to preschool. In Tulsa children with special needs had significantly higher prereading and prewriting gains, gaining from 9 months to close to 11 months on each.

Preschool produces a range of benefits for children

Preschool can have academic and cognitive impacts for children. In New Jersey, for example, children showed increased achievement in language arts, literacy, math, and science through the fourth and fifth grade. Researchers at NIEER found that one year of preschool is associated with increases in achievement equivalent to roughly 10 percent to 20 percent of the achievement gap between students of color and white students, and corresponds to an increase from the 50th percentile to the 58th percentile on language skills. Greater benefits were found for those who attended the preschool program for two years.

Children in Tennessee’s program similarly saw significant increases in early literacy, language, and math skills equivalent to 47 percent greater than those of children who did not attend preschool. These gains included a 75 percent improvement on letter-word identification—a measure of preschool literacy gains—a 152 percent improvement in oral comprehension, and a 176 percent improvement in picture vocabulary; the latter two are both measures of preschool language gains. Students also saw a 37 percent improvement in applied problems and a 63 percent improvement in quantitative concepts, which are both measures of preschool math gains.

Preschool also produces social and emotional benefits for children. Children in Tulsa’s program were less timid and more attentive. In the Gormley study, there was also no evidence of a negative impact on behavior from attending the state-funded preschool.

In addition to building and increasing specific skills, preschool attendance has been correlated with a reduction in grade retention, meaning a reduction in being held back to repeat a grade. Case in point, attending Texas’s public preschool program was associated with a reduction in the chance that a student would be retained by 24 percent; for students with limited English proficiency, the chance of being retained was reduced by 40 percent. NIEER researchers similarly found that attending New Jersey’s Abbott preschool program correlated with a reduced likelihood of grade retention by 40 percent through the fourth and fifth grades.

Finally, preschool attendance is associated with the reduced chance that a child will be referred to special education programs by providing them with the necessary preliteracy skills at an earlier age. NIEER researchers found that attending New Jersey’s preschool program was associated with a 31 percent reduction in the chance of special education placement. For Texas’s program, researchers found that preschool attendance was associated with a 13 percent reduction in the likelihood that a student would be assigned to the special education track by the third grade.


High-quality preschool can be a game changer for all our children, especially for those most at risk of arriving at kindergarten without the skills needed to succeed. The data show that existing large-scale state-run preschool programs are proving effective. The evidence clearly suggests that a federal-state investment that would allow states to grow and improve these existing preschool programs while simultaneously supporting other states as they create their own programs is the wise and prudent path to follow. Given the results highlighted above, encouraging, fostering, and funding preschool programs seems to be the ultimate no-brainer.

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Juliana Herman

Education Policy Analyst