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Starting Early: The Benefits of Attending Early Childhood Education Programs at Age 3

Fri, March 22, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hilton Baltimore, Floor: Level 2, Key 11

Integrative Statement

Although scientific research has clearly shown that early childhood education (ECE) programs prepare children for school, increasing attention has been drawn to whether these early investments have benefits that persist over time. Indeed, the most recent evidence suggests that the benefits of ECE are likely to diminish rapidly during the year or two after program completion. Although these benefits may diminish rapidly, it remains unclear why. Accordingly, we consider (a) whether there are immediate academic, socioemotional, and executive function (EF) benefits of ECE enrollment at age 3, (b) whether these benefits persist up to a year later, and (c) the role of children’s subsequent classroom experiences at age 4 in the persistence of early program benefits.

To address these objectives, we apply regression techniques to data for 1,192 low-income children living in a large, culturally, and linguistically diverse county during the 2015/2016 and 2016/2017 school years. At age 3, approximately one in five children were enrolled in an ECE program (i.e., private centers, school-based programs, or Head Start), and at age 4, 83% attended public school pre-K and the remainder attended a community-based program. Children’s literacy, language, and mathematics skills were measured using the Woodcock-Johnson and EF skills were assessed with the Backward Digit Span task, Head Toes Knees Shoulders task, and Pencil Tap task. Additionally, teachers reported on children’s social-behavioral skills. All models discussed below control for a rich set of child and family covariates (see notes under Table 1 for a list) and account for the nesting of children in schools.

As can be seen in Table 1, the findings from this study revealed that, although no benefits emerged for EF, children who participated in ECE at the age of 3 entered school the following year demonstrating stronger academic skills (effect sizes = 0.20-0.30), and greater levels of behavior problems (effect size = 0.29) than children with no earlier ECE experience. However, these academic benefits were short-lived and did not persist through the end of the following year, in large part because children who did not attend ECE at age 3 caught-up with those who did (see Figure 1). Having established that there was evidence of convergence that stemmed from “catch-up”, we next explored the portion of this convergence that was attributed to children’s classroom experiences the following year. To do so, we used a classroom-fixed effects approach. Results from this effort (not shown) revealed that 25% of the catch-up effect in the academics was attributed to classroom-wide factors during the following year.

Taken together, our findings add to the existing knowledgebase by highlighting the benefits (i.e., achievement) and potential drawbacks (i.e., social-behavior) of ECE programs serving low-income children. Importantly, our findings reveal that a quarter of the convergence in the academic benefits of ECE is attributed to classroom-wide factors during the following year, meaning that convergence—at least in the short-term—can be partially mitigated and that teachers and classrooms play an important role in this effort.