The Lasting Payoff of Early Ed

Benefits of early education found to persist for years, bolstering graduation, reducing retention, and reducing special education placements

November 16, 2017
The Lasting Payoff of Preschool

We know that early childhood education is a good thing, but even with growing enrollments and public investment, debate periodically erupts about the specific benefits of early education and whether those benefits last or fade away over time. Whenever a study finds smaller-than-expected impacts, a new round of questioning begins.

A new study may finally signal the end of the “does early ed work?” debate, uncovering significant evidence that the positive effects of early childhood education persist for years.

Researchers from five universities, led by Dana Charles McCoy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, analyzed 22 well-constructed research studies published between 1960 and 2016, looking at the overall impact of classroom-based early childhood education (ECE) on special education placement, grade retention, and high school graduation. The meta-analysis, published today in Educational Researcher, finds that children who attend high-quality ECE programs are:

  • less likely to be placed in special education;
  • less likely to be retained in a grade; and
  • more likely to graduate from high school

than peers who didn’t attend such programs.

A new analysis of 22 studies published over 46 years finds that the benefits of early childhood education can persist for years — bolstering the case for expanding early education programming in the United States.

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.”

Key Takeaways

Children who participate in high-quality early childhood education (ECE) programs before entering kindergarten experience

  • fewer special education placements;
  • decreased grade retention; and
  • improved high school graduation rates

when compared with peers who don't participate. The findings are from a rigorous new review of a large body of research conducted over more than 40 years. 

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Early Childhood K-12

Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.