Teacher And Pupils Using Wooden Shapes In Montessori School.
A trio of UC Irvine researchers participated in a comprehensive study seeking to better understand early education’s impact on students’ immediate and extended outcomes. Getty Images

Irvine, Calif., May 9, 2024 A new study including University of California, Irvine School of Education researchers has yielded varied results on the impact of publicly funded U.S. preschool programs on student performance beyond early childhood.

A study detailing the findings was published this month in Science.

“It’s settled that early childhood education is an essential component of any nation’s public policy; children are learning well before kindergarten, and parents are working. What is less settled, however, is how much we should expect preschool to be shaping achievement and well-being later in life,” said study co-author Jade Jenkins, UC Irvine associate professor of education.

In addition to her, investigators associated with the UC Irvine School of Education were Professor Drew Bailey; Distinguished Professor Greg Duncan; alumnus Tyler Watts, who earned a Ph.D. in 2017 and is now an assistant professor at Columbia University; and alumna Anamarie Whitaker, who earned a Ph.D. in 2014 and is now an assistant professor at the University of Delaware. The work was led by senior author Margaret Burchinal of the University of Virginia and included Emma Hart of Columbia University.

The scholars examined evaluations of the Head Start program and public prekindergarten initiatives in Boston and Tennessee, discovering that while children saw academic benefits immediately after preschool, the long-term effects varied. The findings highlight that not all early education programs guarantee favorable results, the authors say, stressing the need for more research on effective preschool interventions.

Two key studies in the 1960s and 1970s, the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian projects, respectively, have shaped common beliefs about early childhood education – and sparked significant interest in funding. They showed that early education led to better scholastic outcomes, income levels, employment rates and health, while reducing criminal behavior. However, the Science investigators note, these studies focused on projects more than five decades old, and current preschool initiatives should undergo modern assessments.

“The proven long-term success of early programs like Perry Preschool showed what’s possible with very intensive preschool programs. But policymakers need to know if lessons from Perry hold for today’s programs. Recent research shows that the answer appears to be ‘yes’ in some, but not all, cases,” Duncan said.

Given these mixed findings, he and his fellow authors recommend follow-up evaluations of existing random-assignment and lottery studies to learn whether early education programs correlate to successful outcomes in adulthood.

“The good news for society is that we have invested dramatically more over the past 50 years in programs designed to help young children and families,” Bailey said. “But with such improvements come practical challenges of balancing necessary redundancies in the system with unique opportunities for early education programs to support children’s development.”

The team proposes further research to uncover the essential components of preschool success, with a focus on identifying cognitive and socioemotional skills that yield enduring benefits. The scholars maintain that future efforts should include K-12 test scores and behavior records as well as surveys of teachers and students to shed light on classroom experiences and child development.

They also encourage policymakers and researchers to prioritize rigorous evidence around early childhood education programs in hopes of propelling their evolution and implementation.

UC Irvine’s Brilliant Future campaign: Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for the university. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UC Irvine seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The School of Education plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more at https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/school-of-education.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UC Irvine is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities and is ranked among the nation’s top 10 public universities by U.S. News & World Report. The campus has produced five Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UC Irvine has more than 36,000 students and offers 224 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $7 billion annually to the local economy and $8 billion statewide. For more on UC Irvine, visit www.uci.edu.

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