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Investing Up Front: Preschool Matters

With all the attention focused on equity in education, it's amazing how little discussion has been devoted to the very youngest students and their learning environments. Yet researchers at TC's National Center for Children and Families and elsewhere have found that the pre-K and kindergarten years are the most crucial time for engendering essential skills such as language development, basic counting, socialization and more. And as we follow children of all socioeconomic backgrounds across the years, one bottom-line truth is apparent: early childhood education is more likely to pay off, in terms of education and employment later on, than educational interventions done in the elementary or high school years.

To connect the dots more specifically between quality early education and equity: good early care and a nurturing, stimulating environment can, in the long term, result in gains in school achievement test scores and graduation rates, as well as reductions in grade repeat/failure, special education placement, juvenile delinquency and, sometimes, teen pregnancy. High-quality early education programs have been shown to benefit children at the most risk of inadequate school readiness: those whose mothers have not completed high school, whose families are poor, whose mothers suffer from depression or who have low psychological resources. Evidence indicates that such programs have been able to reduce the school readiness gaps between children who are economically disadvantaged and those who are not, and that they also have the potential to reduce gaps in outcomes between racial groups.

Although it sounds simplistic, it's worth noting that the foremost indicators of excellence in a preschool are the qualifications of its teachers. We in the Teachers College community can be justly proud that our institution is among the beacons lighting the way in this respect. But as members of a society with high expectations of our young, we must also advocate for redressing the national trends of low wages, teachers who are under-prepared to work with three- to six-year-olds, and legislators who often give low priority to early education. It's simple logic: if we don't bring children to the starting gate fully prepared for the race, they're going to run behind. In those critical early years of human development when our children develop a sense of themselves, providing well thought out, child-centered learning in a supportive environment is the soundest long-term investment a society can make. 

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn is Co-Director of the National Center for Children and Families, and the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child Development and Education at Teachers College.

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