As educators, policymakers, parents and caregivers continue to focus on early childhood learning, it remains important to regularly consider the education outcomes and economic effects as children progress.
The authors outline their goal: “In the present study, we conduct a meta-analysis of high-quality research studies to provide an up-to-date estimate of the overall impact of ECE program participation on three distinct medium- and long-term educational outcomes: special education placement, grade retention, and high school graduation. We focus on these outcomes for several reasons. First, previous literature suggests that the skills typically targeted by ECE programming—including cognitive skills in language, literacy, and math as well as socio-emotional capacities in self-regulation, motivation/engagement, and persistence—are likely precursors of children’s ability to maintain a positive academic trajectory (Heckman, Pinto, & Savelyev, 2013). As a result, educational outcomes are theoretically relevant as more distal targets of ECE programming. Second, the prevalence and cost of special education, grade retention, and especially high school dropout are large (Levin, Belfield, Muennig, & Rouse, 2007).”
What were the results?
“Results of multilevel weighted regression analyses revealed positive and statistically significant average effects of ECE across all three outcomes combined, b = 0.24, SE = 0.04, p < .001.”
“Specifically, ECE participation led to an average decrease of 0.33 SD (SE = 0.11, p < .01) in special education placement, an average decrease of 0.26 SD (SE = 0.06, p < .001) in grade retention, and average increase of 0.24 SD (SE = 0.07, p < .001) in graduation rates relative to non-participation.”
“Based on the subset of observations providing the necessary data, our results show that ECE participation is associated with an 8.09 percentage point (SE = 3.44, p < .05) decrease in special education placement, 8.29 percentage point (SE = 2.05, p < .01) decrease in grade retention, and 11.41 percentage point (SE = 2.40, p < .01) increase in high school graduation.”
“Results of sensitivity analyses were largely consistent with those from our primary analyses and suggest that effects of ECE on educational outcomes (particularly special education and retention) are larger at longer term follow-up relative to time points close to the end of treatment.”
In other words, “These results suggest that classroom-based ECE programs for children under five can lead to significant and substantial decreases in special education placement and grade retention and increases in high school graduation rates. These findings support previous work on the lasting impacts of ECE on children’s educational progression, placement, and completion (Aos, Lieb, Mayfield, Miller, & Pennucci, 2004; Camilli, Vargas, Ryan, & Barnett, 2010; Gorey, 2001; Lazar et al., 1982). Importantly, relative to this earlier work, our analyses cover a wider age range, reflect a mix of both historical demonstration projects and more modern large-scale evaluations, and use more rigorous criteria for research design.”
The authors outline the potential economic benefits of early childhood education as well:
“Over the past several years, financial investments in public ECE have risen rapidly, with states spending $7.4 billion in 2016 to support early education for nearly 1.5 million 3- and 4-year-olds (Barnett et al., 2017).
“Even more costly is the fact that approximately 373,000 youth in the United States drop out of high school each year, with each dropout leading to an estimated $689,000 reduction in individual lifetime earnings and a $262,000 cost to the broader economy (Chapman, Laird, Ifill, & Kewal-Ramani, 2011; Levin et al., 2007).”
“These negative educational outcomes are much more frequent for children growing up in low- as opposed to higher-income families, and yet more than half of low-income 3- and 4-year-old children remain out of center-based care (Child Trends, 2015; O’Connor & Fernandez, 2006).”
“Given the high costs that special education placement, grade retention, and dropout place on both individuals and taxpayers, our results suggest that further investments in ECE programming may be one avenue for reducing educational and economic burdens and inequities.”