As early childhood researchers, we’ve spent our careers steeped in an unlimited physique of labor that paperwork the long-term optimistic impacts of high quality early care and training on the lives of these lucky sufficient to expertise it. The pre-academic and social-emotional abilities youngsters develop in preschool—the flexibility to handle frustration, work with friends, ask for assist, and recuperate from setbacks and disruptions—create the muse upon which future college and life success is constructed.
But with all of the analysis demonstrating the advantages of early training for these most in want—and there may be loads—entry to high quality preschool packages stays inequitable. Typically, entry will depend on a household’s capacity to pay for and transport their youngster to and from center-based packages—which might value greater than tuition at in-state public school—or whether or not they occur to reside in one of many handful of cities and states that supply free or sliding-scale public preschool packages. To place it in perspective, even earlier than the pandemic, simply 34 p.c of 4-year-olds and 6 p.c of 3-year-olds have been enrolled in public preschool.
The Biden administration’s American Households Plan goals to vary this, calling for unprecedented investments in our nation’s system of early studying and care. The plan, which faces an uphill battle in Congress, proposes a $200 billion federal funding free of charge, common preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, in addition to $225 billion to help entry to inexpensive, inclusive and high quality studying and youngster care alternatives, together with youngster care facilities, household youngster care suppliers and Early/Head Begin.
As cities and states discover coverage methods for how you can use this unprecedented funding to develop pre-Ok, early childhood leaders can have a substantial amount of management over who has entry to pre-Ok by means of coverage selections that affect which college students enroll, the place they enroll and finally, what they’ll obtain academically. As cities and states implement totally different methods, one of many questions that can come up is: Which insurance policies are greatest at creating pathways to higher outcomes, particularly for youngsters from under-resourced communities?
Chicago could also be on to a technique that works.
For years, the scholars who enrolled in Chicago Public Faculties’ restricted variety of full-day pre-Ok lecture rooms have been largely from white households dwelling within the metropolis’s wealthiest neighborhoods. However recognizing this imbalance, in 2013, the Metropolis of Chicago rolled out main coverage modifications to create extra equitable enrollment in pre-Ok packages.
The coverage modifications that arose from this effort included rising the variety of full-day pre-Ok lecture rooms, reallocating lecture rooms to create a stronger presence in “high-priority” neighborhoods, and grassroots consciousness campaigns to households whose youngsters weren’t already enrolled in pre-Ok. The aim was to enroll extra college students from “high-priority” teams—in different phrases, college students of coloration and college students dwelling in neighborhoods with decrease incomes and better unemployment—to assist them higher put together for achievement in kindergarten and past.
As researchers at Begin Early, a nonprofit public-private partnership advancing high quality early studying and care based mostly in Chicago, now we have an extended historical past of collaborating with Chicago Public Faculties and Metropolis of Chicago policymakers. So when our colleagues started to ask questions on what their administrative information may inform them about what occurred once they rolled out these coverage modifications, we have been keen to assist them discover out.
Working with our companions at NORC on the College of Chicago and the College of Chicago Consortium on Faculty Analysis, our research found that these policy changes led to greater equity in both access to and enrollment in full-day pre-K in the city.
Notably, the number of Black students and those from the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods tripled within the first three years of the policy changes going into effect. The concentration of full-day pre-K seats increased most on the West and South Sides of Chicago, in neighborhoods where children have historically been under-enrolled in pre-K and underserved by the city’s early education system.
We were even more excited to find that by expanding access and enrollment, children were more likely to enter kindergarten with higher skills and, eventually, achieve better academic outcomes in second grade. Average second-grade math and reading test scores and academic grades increased the most for some high-priority student groups. The post-policy differences in academic grades for Black children corresponded to an improvement of nearly 0.10 on a four-point grading scale, compared to no change in academic grades for white students and only about half the gains for students in the highest-income group.
Again, the research is clear: Quality early learning and care is one of the best ways to level the playing field. Millions of children living in under-resourced communities would be more likely to thrive in school and in life if only they had access to quality early learning and care programs.
From a policy perspective, the study offers consistent, significant evidence that a set of pre-K policy changes made at the system level—intentionally targeting high-priority student groups—enabled Chicago to achieve its goals of providing more equitable enrollment and academic outcomes within the first three years of implementation.
So, as early childhood systems leaders begin planning to respond to the American Families Plan and developing policies to expand pre-K—hopefully with equity top of mind—our study suggests they might consider following Chicago’s lead.
This means monitoring patterns in their own data, such as changes in pre-K access and enrollment and in elementary school outcomes for different student groups, and engaging in research partnerships (like ours) to explore why those patterns exist and how to change them to meet local goals. It may also mean having hard conversations and acknowledging uncomfortable truths about existing systems, but this is what is necessary if we hope to provide truly equitable access to quality early education for all children in this country through universal preschool.
Of course, access to school-based, full-day pre-K alone cannot undo long-standing systemic inequities in our communities. States and cities must consider other key policies to address the inequities in students’ early academic achievement, such as those that support preschool-to-third-grade instructional alignment, home-school partnerships that engage families, restorative or inclusive school discipline policies, and reduction of poverty and violence.
As we emerge from the pandemic, pre-K and other quality programs serving preschool-age children will be a critical part of building an early childhood system that prioritizes and supports families when it matters most. Working together, researchers, policymakers and systems leaders can figure out which policies work best for children and families and help ensure every child has access to a great early learning experience.