Education: Early Education (Pew Prospectus)

  • April 18, 2005
ahead of the curve.

Early education had its adherents in 2001, when the Trusts entered the field, but there was no groundswell of interest. Most policymakers were unfamiliar with its potential, no organizations were focused exclusively on advancing early education, few states supported it, and the media regarded it as a day-care issue, not an education opportunity.

Just four years later, there are clear signs that early education is a significant movement, exemplified by impressive state actions. In 2004—a year of persistent budget deficits—15 states increased funding by a total of $205 million and created 60,000 new preschool slots. Eighteen states held funding constant, and even the seven states that decreased funding for early education seemed to do so reluctantly: The reductions totaled only $12.5 million.

infrastructure for advancing early education.

The growing numbers of early education proponents rely mostly on two Trusts-supported organizations in the field: the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University (NIEER), which has created a sound research database for informing the debate; and Pre-K Now, a project of the Institute for Educational Leadership, Inc., that serves as a resource for state groups advocating for improved early education.

NIEER's annual state-by-state reports on early education policy have become a standard reference in the field. Media coverage of the 2004 report alone reached more than 30 million people, and the balanced and accurate reporting of comparative data has galvanized states to improve their rankings.

NIEER also works directly with interested parties, helping them understand the implications of research. For instance, policymakers may not realize that a neuroscientist's novel study on how children learn contains information useful in establishing curriculum guidelines or educational qualifications for teachers. NIEER provides timely information on how a new idea addresses the practical problems of policy.

The organization has become the central source for research on preschool—the nexus of cutting-edge work from many disciplines. With Pre-K Now, it has developed a rapid response capacity to make sure that the media get an independent, research-based perspective on breaking news. Its Web site not only contains a comprehensive archive of preschool data but also offers opportunities for researchers to engage in online discussions on emerging scholarship. As NIEER's executive director, W. Steven Barnett, says, “It is not enough to know that a preschool program works. There needs to be healthy debate about why it works.”

Pre-K Now coordinates public education efforts and provides a strong advocacy voice at the state and federal levels to educate policymakers, the media and the general public about the potential that preschool offers in the early years and throughout life.

For instance, Pre-K Now manages a network of state organizations to help encourage a favorable climate for preschool policy change. The groups are chosen on their track record and intimate knowledge of the policy processes in their respective states and, most importantly, on their ability to work together and make a difference.

Pre-K Now has supported efforts in Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington state and Wisconsin. Particularly noteworthy are the achievements in Arkansas, which nearly quadrupled its funding, and in Florida, which, joining Georgia and Oklahoma, created preschool programs for all four-year-olds.

Nationally, Pre-K Now has particularly stressed the need for well-educated teachers. It is carrying this message into 2005, working with a variety of constituency groups to develop support for a set of principles governing teacher training in federal programs.

In anticipation of the reconsideration of the federal education law in 2006, Pre-K Now is developing a series of issue papers analyzing financing mechanisms, preschool quality and coordination among federal programs.

greater value and broader participation.

Preschool not only benefits children—it is also a smart economic investment. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman examined the costs and benefits of prekindergarten as a means of increasing worker productivity and growing the economy. He found that investing in early education, especially for children who start out behind their peers, is essential to building the well-trained and entrepreneurial workforce our nation needs.

Business and philanthropic leaders have taken notice of the compelling data on early education's benefits. PNC Bank launched a 10-year, $100-million “Grow Up Great” program to help prepare children for school. The Joyce Foundation has granted $6 million to promote preschool in several Midwestern states. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation has made preschool one of its top priorities, devoting $7 million to encourage preschool both in California and nationally, and has invested $2 million in Pre-K Now's California network.

Increasingly, the message is being heard that preschool is not another form of child care but the start of a child's educational journey. Because it has lasting value for children, it is among the best investments we can make in their future—and in our future as well.