Achieving universal preschool in the United States requires a significant change from the current model of providing targeted pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) only to children who qualify, mostly for low-income reasons. Targeted Pre-K programs are often underfunded, meaning they do not reach all the children who qualify, and they leave many middle-income families struggling to pay for private preschool because their income exceeds public Pre-K limits.
However, the policy decision to expand public preschool from a targeted to a universal system requires an evidence base demonstrating that this is an impactful investment for children.
Children who don’t attend preschool score poorer results on literacy measures and read below their grade level
In January, 2018, I published a study investigating the link between public Pre-K attendance and first grade literacy achievement in a group of 1,056 children from a mixed-urban school district in Virginia. I compared children who attended the district provided Pre-K with similar children who had not attend intuitional preschool of any kind, across a wide range of first grade literacy measures from both the beginning and middle of first grade. This comparison used propensity score matching that included covariates such as age, income, race and disability status.
Children who attended public Pre-K in the district scored significantly higher on every literacy measure (e.g. reading level, spelling, sight word identification, letter sound identification) in both the beginning and middle of first grade compared to children who did not attend any type of preschool.
If society really values all children reaching their full literacy potential … then providing high quality universal preschool appears essential.
But more important than the statistical difference between the two groups was the actual experience of the children in first grade if they had attended Pre-K. On average, children who attended the district provided public Pre-K program were reading on grade level in both the beginning and middle of first grade, but children who had not attended preschool were reading below grade level across both time points.
This is significant because grade-level reading ability in the early elementary grades predicts later life outcomes, such as high school graduation, higher rates of college graduation, higher lifetime earnings, and lower rates of incarceration. Furthermore, children who are reading below grade level are assigned to extra reading and literacy instruction through remediation efforts that are costly.
Another important finding from the study is that the number of first grade children reading above grade level is much higher for Pre-K attendees compared to non-attendees. If society really values all children reaching their full literacy potential, beyond meeting minimum benchmark expectations, then providing high quality universal preschool appears essential.