Academic journal article The Future of Children

When Does Preschool Matter?

Academic journal article The Future of Children

When Does Preschool Matter?

Article excerpt


We have many reasons to invest in preschool programs, including persistent gaps in school readiness between children from poorer and wealthier families, large increases in maternal employment over the past several decades, and the rapid brain development that preschool-age children experience. But what do we know about preschool education's effectiveness?

In this article, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Christina Weiland, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn report strong evidence that preschool boosts children's language, literacy, and math skills in the short term; it may also reduce problem behaviors such as aggression. Over the elementary school years, however, test scores of children who were exposed to preschool tend to converge with the scores of children who were not. Many factors may explain this convergence. For example, kindergarten or first-grade teachers may focus on helping children with lower levels of skills get up to speed, or children may lose ground when they transition from high-quality preschools into poor-quality elementary programs. Taking a longer view, some studies have found that attending preschool boosts childrens high school graduation rates and makes them less likely to engage in criminal behavior. Overall, higher-quality preschool programs are associated with larger effects.

How might preschools produce larger effects that last longer? Developmentally focused curricula, combined with intensive in-service training or coaching for teachers, have been shown to improve the quality of preschool instruction. Focusing on fundamental skills that both predict long-term outcomes and are less likely to be gained in the first years of school might also produce longer-lasting effects. And improving instructional quality in early elementary school and better aligning the preschool and elementary curricula may be another way to sustain the boost that quality preschool education can provide. Above all, the authors write, if we want to see sustained improvements in children's development and learning, we need to increase the quality of--not just access to--preschool education.


Several factors together present a strong rationale for investing in children's learning before age five, when children enter primary school in the United States. First, family income-based gaps in cognitive skills are already large when children enter school. These gaps don't grow substantially as schooling goes on, suggesting that to reduce achievement gaps, we may need to intervene before children begin school. (1)

Second, during early childhood, the brain is especially sensitive to environmental enrichment. Early experiences in children's homes, in other care settings, and in their communities interact with their genes to shape their brains. Their neuronal systems undergo very rapid growth and then pruning, based on environmental inputs such as activities, language, and other people's responsiveness. Environmentally influenced brain development supports a range of early skills, including cognitive skills (language, literacy, and math), social skills (understanding others' behaviors and motivations, prosocial behaviors, and understanding and display of emotions), and self-regulation and executive function (voluntary control of attention and behavior).

Third, large increases in maternal employment over the past several decades, especially among lower-income families, mean that more children experience care by others besides parents early in life. Finally, the majority of US parents prefer preschool to home-based care for their three- and four-year old children. Polling suggests that 70 percent of Americans support legislation to make preschool available to all young children. (2)

The rationale for preschool education involves both preparing children to be ready for elementary school and reducing achievement and behavior gaps between children whose parents have more and less education or higher and lower income. …

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