The reason for those gains is not fully established, McCoy says, but “there is increasing evidence that social-emotional skills may play a role, as they support children's ability to continuously engage in learning environments, manage their own behaviors, and get along well with others.” It’s an area that calls for more attention from researchers in the future.
But even without a clear cause, the new analysis emphasizes the payoff to public funding of ECE, suggesting its potential to mitigate the high costs of special education and of dropouts and other poor educational outcomes.
This work reinforces previous assessments of ECE’s impact on student progress, placement, and completion, but it covers a wider age range, reflects a mix of historical and contemporary research, and uses more rigorous criteria in designing its research parameters.
(Co-authors on the research were Hirokazu Yoshikawa of New York University, Kathleen M. Ziol-Guest of the RAND Corporation, Greg J. Duncan of the University of California, Irvine, Holly S. Schindler of the University of Washington, Katherine Magnuson of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Rui Yang of New York University, and Andrew Koepp and Jack Shonkoff, both of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.)
There hasn’t been much disagreement that early childhood education is a good investment for children and families — that it plays an important role in supporting children’s cognitive ability in language, literacy, and math, as well as social skill development and emotional growth, McCoy says. “But at the same time, the results of several recent studies have tempered enthusiasm over public investments, as they have shown smaller-than-expected impacts or fade-out over time.”
It’s important to recognize, though, that contemporary studies will likely never show the same dramatic impacts that historical studies did, since those older studies were comparing "preschool" to "no preschool." Instead, today’s studies are comparing different types of early education programs to one another — apples to apples.
And these are just the right comparisons to be making, McCoy says, to help us “move beyond questions of ‘does it work?’ to zero in on more meaningful and nuanced questions of ‘how, where, and for whom does it work best?’ There is already a sea change toward these more nuanced questions in the field, which is very encouraging.”