By now the benefits of high-quality preschool are widely accepted. But there are still open questions about its impact: Is it important to give children younger than age three high-quality care? And do the effects stay with children throughout their lives, or do they fade as they continue through the rest of their educational experiences?
A new high-quality study answers both questions with a yes, at least when it comes to low-income and disadvantaged children.
The study out of Tulsa, Oklahoma is a randomized control trial in which half the children of low-income parents were randomly assigned to attend a high-quality Educare program as infants and half were not. What it found is that from kindergarten through third grade, children who had gone to Educare as infants and toddlers had higher academic outcomes by the end of third grade than those who didn’t. They had better letter and word identification, vocabularies, oral comprehension and math scores. The study found mixed results when it came to executive functioning—by one measure the children who went to Educare scored higher, but by another there was no difference. There were no differences between the two groups in social-emotional skills.
“There are very few longitudinal studies tracking children from their infant and toddler years to middle school years,” said Diane Horm, the George Kaiser Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Education at the University of Oklahoma, one of the authors of the study and the evaluator for Educare Tulsa. “Our study is one of the few that does that.” By doing so, it has proven two different things: that investing in children’s educational environments is important starting as early as infancy, not just when they reach typical preschool age; and that doing so will reap rewards long after they get older.
“As a society it’s great for us to be focused on expanding preschool, but earlier is better,” Horm said. “Our study shows that if we want to change the educational direction of children growing up at disadvantage, we need to start early, earlier than preschool.”
Educare is network of 25 schools serving children from birth to age five across the country. Begun with a single school in Chicago in 2000, it has since spread and focuses on the first three years of a child’s life. In offering what Educare Tulsa Executive Director Cindy Decker calls “full day, high-quality, holistic education,” it has four core features: high-quality teaching practices, an emphasis on ongoing professional development, intensive family services and the use of data to continuously improve the program. It complies with Head Start and Early Head Start standards and then goes above and beyond them.
Lead teachers in each classroom are required to have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a related field. Each classroom has three teachers, and they stick to Head Start mandated ratios: eight infants maximum for three teachers, 17 three-year-olds for three teachers, and 20 four-year-olds per three teachers. The staff is offered ongoing professional development, including a coach for every teacher and a supervisor for every family advocate. They’re encouraged to meet and reflect on problems they’re facing, coming up with solutions and “empowering staff to really think through things and problem solve as a team,” Decker said.
Every program partners with a local evaluator that collects and shares data on the school for “continuous improvement,” Decker said. “While we feel we know what matters, we also know that learning never stops.”
For parents, the programs are free and full-day, year-round. Educare also offers what Decker calls “intensive family engagement.” When children first enroll, family support workers interview families to assess their needs. For those with immediate needs such as hunger, domestic violence or the threat of eviction, the school will connect them to resources in the community that can help. Families that are more stable are encouraged to become advocates, possibly even traveling to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress for more child care funding. The program’s family support workers have lower caseloads than in regular Head Start programs.
Educare is thus a far higher-quality option than what many children in the U.S. experience. Only about a third of four-year-olds attended preschool in the 2021-2022 school year and less than 7 percent of three-year-olds did, and not all of those programs will offer the same kind of quality that Educare strives for. In 2006, less than 10 percent of child care centers met all quality standards.
The control group in the Tulsa study, or the children who weren’t assigned to attend Educare, often ended up with a patchwork of care. The most common arrangement was for their parents to leave them with a family member or friend. Five went to a public preschool program, five attended Head Start, five went to a formal child care provider and one had a babysitter. But they had “often multiple combinations of those things,” Horm said.
When Horm first started following the children in each group, her study was part of a larger research project on the Educare system that began in 2010 and spanned four different programs. Those studies looked at how children fared after a year of Educare and again at three years. Both found positive impacts for the children who attended the program: after a year they had better auditory and expressive language skills, while parents reported fewer behavior problems and had better interactions with their children. After three years, the children who had been in Educare had better auditory language and early math skills and fewer behavior problems as reported by parents.
“These initial positive results propelled us to continue the study in Tulsa,” Horm said. She wanted to keep following the children after they left Educare to see whether these effects would last once they entered the public school system. With some funding from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, they were able to keep going while other sites ended their tracking.
The results of this latest study have limitations in terms of their application. For one, Educare offers a much higher quality setting than many preschool settings. To replicate the results, policymakers would have to ensure the same level of quality.
But for Horm, what it proves is that, at the very least, the country should be fully funding Early Head Start and Head Start programs to reach all eligible children. The study shows “the power of starting with high-quality infant/toddler programs, which as a society we have invested in least,” Horm said. As of 2020, the funding for Head Start was only enough to serve 51 percent of children living in poverty, and for Early Head Start it was enough to serve a mere 10 percent. More funding would also have to be added to make these programs more closely resemble Educare—ensuring they operate for a full day, year-round, with well trained teachers and caseworkers who can give parents the attention they need. It’s “a reach that our society could do if we chose to do it,” she said.
Another limitation is that the study only looks at low-income children, as Educare follows Head Start parameters and is only open to families living below the poverty line. The results can’t necessarily, then, be applied to universal preschool programs that are offered to students of all backgrounds, such as what’s been implemented in New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C. But Horm pointed to other studies that make a case that her results could potentially apply to higher income children, too. For example, one done in 2011 found a positive relationship between higher quality care from the ages birth to four and a half years, and better academic achievement at age 15 for an economically diverse group of children. Another, which looked at Boston’s program, found that universal, public preschool reduced behavior issues in elementary and middle school, increased high school graduation rates, and boosted college attendance.
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing has appeared in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, the New Republic, Slate, and others, and she won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR, and other outlets. She was previously Economic Editor at ThinkProgress, Editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog, and a contributor at Forbes. She also worked as a financial reporter and head of the energy sector at mergermarket, an online newswire that is part of the Financial Times group.