Children Reap Lasting Benefits from Quality Preschool Programs

As candidates debate national preschool policy, expert urges policymakers to stick with what works

Contact: Teri Battaglieri – (517)203-2940;
W. Steven Barnett – (732) 932-4350;

EAST LANSING, Mi., (Sept. 10, 2008)—Amid a contentious debate over the value of preschool programs, a new policy brief, Preschool Education and Its Lasting Effects: Research and Policy Implications examines what researchers currently know about the short- and long-term effects of preschool. The brief concludes that preschool can strongly benefit children’s learning and development. But it also finds that the quality of programs varies dramatically and that increased public investment in preschool education should be focused on program designs that have been demonstrated to be highly effective.

The policy brief is written by W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It was released today by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

Preschool programs have become increasingly common over the last several decades. Recommendations for or against various forms of universal, publicly funded preschool have emerged in the current presidential campaign. For example, Senator Barack Obama is proposing grants to encourage states to institute universal, voluntary preschool programs, while John McCain’s campaign has called for a more limited federal role, providing information and databases to help parents choose a preschool education program.

Barnett’s brief offers a solid research foundation upon which this policy debate can proceed.

In his brief, Barnett explains that well-designed preschool programs have been shown to produce long-term improvements in school success—raising students’ achievement test scores, reducing the rates of students being retained in grade, reducing the assignment of students to special education programs, and raising student educational attainment. He also finds that these well-designed programs are extraordinarily cost effective, with their long-term payoffs far exceeding their costs.

The strongest evidence suggests that children from all socioeconomic backgrounds reap long-term benefits from preschool, Barnett says. And he notes that the strongest benefits are received by economically disadvantaged children.

However, Barnett also warns that current public policies for child care, Head Start, and state pre-Kindergarten programs offer no assurance that American children will attend such highly effective preschool programs. Some attend no preschool and others attend educationally weak programs.

Although there are exceptions, highly effective preschool programs are generally characterized by small class sizes and the use of well-educated, adequately paid teachers, and Barnett recommends that policymakers stick with those approaches. Preschool teachers should undergo intensive supervision and coaching and “should be involved in a continuous improvement process for teaching and learning.” Preschool programs also should regularly monitor children’s learning and development.

Because preschool programs vary so much in quality, Barnett counsels against simply raising child care subsidies. Instead, he recommends greater public investment in effective preschool education programs, with a focus on state and local pre-K programs with high standards, which have been found to be the most effective. Such programs “need not be provided by public schools,” he notes; public, private and Head Start programs all “have produced similar results when operating with the same resources and standards as part of the same state pre-K program.”

Finally, Barnett recommends that policies expanding preschool access to children under four give priority to disadvantaged children because an earlier start and longer duration appear to produce better results.

Find Steve Barnett’s report, Preschool Education and Its Lasting Effects: Research and Policy Implications on the web at:


The mission of the Great Lakes Center is to improve public education for all students in the Great Lakes region through the support and dissemination of high quality, academically sound research on education policy and practices.

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