The 6 Myths of Early Childhood Education

Preschool and other early childhood education programs -- here, we factcheck the biggest misconceptions about them. 

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This article originally appeared on the blog for The Center for the Next Generation, which has partnered with Parents magazine in an awareness campaign called "Too Small to Fail."

Opponents of President Obama's early childhood education efforts have been out in force these last two weeks, with Americans for Prosperity taking the latest attack. Groups like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation have been arguing that early childhood education is, among other things, expensive and ineffective, but they're wrong on both counts.

Like a bad game of telephone, opponents of early childhood education have been thoughtlessly circulating the same talking points without worrying if any of them makes any sense.

So, in the spirit of transparency, here are some of the top myths being spread about early childhood education, and the evidence to debunk the claims, one-by-one.

    MYTH 1: The Achievement Gap is Not a Problem

    While no reasonable opponent of early childhood education can deny the existence of an obvious achievement gap in education, by totally ignoring the fact that the academic playing field is not level, they're perpetuating a serious myth of omission.

    If you ignore the achievement gap and its causes, it makes it a lot easier to argue against early education spending. But in reality, we know that kids who get off to a bad start in school have a hard time making up the ground, and while teachers make a big difference, they can't control what happens outside the classroom.

    Consider some facts:

    New advances in neural development show that children's brains grow and develop 85 percent of their full capacity by the time they are 5 years old. In those first few years of life the very architecture of the brain is determined by the child's environment.

    Toxic stress, like abuse, limited nutrition, unstable housing, dangerous neighborhoods, and economic instability, puts downward pressure on emotional growth and overall brain development (in some cases actually reducing the size of certain parts of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex, which are involved in impulse control and regulation; read: the ability to pay attention and learn in a classroom).

    Vocabulary growth among children exposed to these stressors, often from working-class and low-income families, falls far short of their higher-income peers'. For example, children from low-income households have a vocabulary that is half as developed as high-income children, a trend that becomes evident as early as 36 months of age.

    These early disparities translate into a well-recognized achievement gap among students in this country. Black and Hispanic students, who suffer disproportionately in communities with toxic stress, consistently score lower on tests for reading and math, and by the third grade -- as these gaps in academic success grow -- the vicious cycle of poor performance is in full swing.

    It's no wonder, then, that high school dropout rates are 3 percent higher for African Americans and a whopping 10 percent higher for Hispanic and Latino children compared to their white classmates. Opponents of early education reform dismiss, or worse, willfully ignore this evidence when talking about education.

    When all else fails, they start a new attack line with Myth 2, arguing that early education is completely ineffective.

      Myth #2: Early Learning is Ineffective

      Mountains of research in the last decade point to early education as the best way to counteract the toxic stress that leaves many kids at such a disadvantage, but there are plenty of opponents on this point too.

      Which brings us to Myth #2: Early learning is ineffective.

      This dubious myth comes from studies that supposedly show little overall achievement among students who've gone through early learning programs. In particular, early education opponents have been harping on a recent government study on Head Start that found that the benefits of the program largely disappear after the third grade -- the so-called "fade out" phenomenon.

      If preschool has no lasting effect there's no reason to fund it, some will argue. The problem is that opponents simply misinterpret the study they are using to attack early education efforts.

      For example, "fade out" doesn't mean that programs like Head Start are ineffective. Look carefully at the Head Start study: "In terms of children's well-being, there is...clear evidence that access to Head Start had an impact on children's language and literacy development while children were in Head Start".

      Regardless of what happened outside the program, participants got an undeniable boost from being enrolled: these children came to their first year of school more advanced than their peers who were not in the program.

      On top of developing language and reading skills while they were in Head Start, the children were also more likely to have health and dental insurance, and spent more time with their parents who, because of the guidance built in to the program, were less authoritarian in their parenting approach.

      So why the fadeout by third grade?

      As the study itself recognizes, it's because the kids who qualify for Head Start are most often the same ones who end up in crumbling public schools.

      The impact study distressingly notes that, "Not surprisingly, the study children attended schools with much higher levels of poverty than schools nationwide (as indicated by proportions of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch -- 66-67 percent) and were in schools with higher proportions of minority students (approximately 60 percent of students)."

      Head Start is not failing these kids -- it's our country's disinvestment in poorer communities that continues to determine a child's future educational progress.

      While early childhood education programs make a tremendous difference and are a necessary first step, they must be followed by a K-12 system that builds on, rather than detracts from, meaningful progress.

      That's why the President's plan promotes targeted, high-quality, integrated early childhood education.

      His plan doesn't just fund pre-K, but expands the nurse home visit program to help parents and infants grow in to healthy youngsters (while giving back a healthy 3:1 return on investment), supports safe child care for children before they get in to pre-school, and then puts $300 million into "Promise Neighborhoods" targeting children in high poverty communities, just to name a few proposals.

      Better child care and more funding for local schools can help to counteract fade out and improve academic performance.

      High-quality early childhood education models matched with well-funded schools, like the Abbott Preschool program in New Jersey, show how states can significantly increase a child's math and reading scores while decreasing the need for special education, improving a child's chance for later success.

      Far from being ineffective, early childhood education programs boost student achievement and enhance learning later in life. If implemented with care, early childhood education can quickly disprove Myth #3: That somehow early childhood education is just too expensive.

        Myth #3: Early Childhood Education is Too Expensive

        So far we've covered the achievement gap in education and the effectiveness of pre-K -- even Head Start -- but despite our best efforts, the misdirection continues.

        Opponents of early education decry the fact that even if programs are effective -- a big if, in their opinion -- they are just too expensive for struggling states and the federal government to implement.

        We've addressed this complaint in the past, conceding that early education will cost money; but cost is only half of the equation. To focus on it exclusively is entirely misleading, particularly when ample evidence on early childhood education proves that these programs can deliver large savings.

        Studies on successful interventions put the savings anywhere from $7 to $13 for every single dollar invested in the educational intervention.

        Economist Timothy Bartik proves this point very effectively in a recent TED talk showing how individual states stand to gain enormously from a more educated workforce once they invest in early childhood education. As he shows, even a childless working adult stands to gain from the educated children of other parents who can grow up and participate fully in the local economy.

        The basic principle is very simple: eliminating the achievement gap boosts high school completion rates, setting children up for college or a vocation. More kids then stay out of the criminal justice system and end up making more money over a lifetime (largely because their education makes them more valuable on the job market).

        On the other hand, as we saw in Myth #1, leaving children in toxic environments that stunt their growth and leave them behind their classmates only sets them up for failure. The cost of leaving a whole generation unprepared to succeed is a national concern.

        This vicious cycle can begin early, as children who engage at some level with the criminal justice system are11 to 26 percent more likely drop out of high school. As more children leave high school without a diploma (even for non-criminal justice related reasons), they become more likely to commit crime.

        Once involved in the criminal justice system, and without a high school diploma, these children face a lifetime of delayed earnings, social stigma, and a higher rate of repeat offense.

        This increased likelihood of criminal activity is destructive to the individual, and also costs society, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, nearly $39 billion dollars every year. All told, the President's plan for early education is calling for a $78 billion investment over ten years.

        While many policies involve complex trade-offs, spending five times more on prisons over early learning in the next decade seems an incredibly poor allocation of resources.

        Early learning can remedy this cycle. Over 40 years of longitudinal data on child outcomes shows that kids with early education intervention are more likely to own a home, earn more money at their jobs, and -- wait for it -- graduate from high school.

        When kids advance through an education system built for opportunity, society gets a double bonus: saving on prison spending and remedial education, plus increased tax revenue because these children are earning more money. As one Pew study shows, the consequence of not investing $10,000 per student in early education is $250,000 in costs per student later in life from lower earnings and more need for public assistance.

        No complex science here, just plain math.

        Recognizing that there is ample evidence that children are at greater risk in their early years, and unable to refute clear evidence of significant return on investment for early education, opponents still resort to Myth #4: Early learning interventions are outliers from a bygone era.

          Myth #4: Successful Early Education Programs are Outliers

          smart newborn in classroom DONOT6_STUDIO/shutterstock.com

          So far we've clarified that not only is the achievement gap very real, but also that early childhood education can have a measurable impact on children -- all the while saving a massive sum of money for society through decreased spending on crime, remedial education, and social welfare.

          Yet opponents tell us that studies that show proven, measureable impacts on children -- while possibly successful in their limited form -- are simply outliers in the data that should be treated with extreme caution, if not open distrust.

          They argue that the studies deal with specific students, unlike a general population, or they focus on programs that are, somehow, too intensive to replicate on a national scale. While it's valid to critique the scalability of any national policy, this myth is nothing more than a red herring, distracting from the mountains of evidence already available to assess early childhood education.

          Well-documented, peer reviewed, continual research on programs across the nation has provided plenty of evidence for early education's effectiveness.

          The list is impressive.

          There is Michigan's HighScope Perry Preschool Program, North Carolina's Abecedarian Project, Illinois' Chicago Child-Parent Center, New Jersey's Abbott Preschool Program, and Oklahoma's Early Childhood Four-Year-Old Program; and this is just the start.

          The National Institute for Early Learning Education (NIEER) has assembled a national compendium of information on early learning programs, listing several states that not only offer access to early learning, but that do so with lower than average costs and higher than average quality.

          Georgia is near the top of the list, meeting 8 out of 10 quality benchmarks in the Rutgers' study (which includes low teacher-child ratios and educators with bachelor's degrees, among eight other items) with the 6th highest enrollment and 25th lowest spending among every state program in the country.

          Oklahoma's state program meets 9 of 10 quality benchmarks and enrolls a whopping 74 percent of 4-years olds in their program, according to the same NIEER study. And independent studies by Rutgers' researchers confirm the long-term impact of the state's early learning program.

          Students enrolled in Oklahoma's early childhood education program showed statistically significant increases in math skills, vocabulary, and reading abilities. Cynthia Lamy, and other researchers at Rutgers University who studied the Oklahoma program, note that, "The effects found in this study are the first link in a chain that produces the long-term school success and economic benefits documented by preschool studies that have followed children into adulthood."

          Early learning advocates, after sifting through the pile of studies that indicate success, have been able to tease out generalizable aspects of every one of these successful examples. They call for inclusive, regularly-assessed programs run by educators who are trained with at least a 4-year degree; the very types of standards that are to be included in serious national proposal for early childhood education.

          So with little else to stand on, skeptics turn to the fifth distortion in their bag of myths: that President Obama's proposed funding model is fatally flawed.

            Myth #5: The President's Funding Plan for Early Education Won't Work

            Sound research shows that early childhood education can be incredibly effective if implemented with care, will save hundreds of millions -- if not billions -- of dollars for society over the lifetime of a child, and these well-tested programs can help eliminate a pernicious achievement gap among some children.

            Sounds great, right? But what about implementation?

            In order to reach the $78 billion dollars in funding needed to roll out universal pre-K over the next ten years, the President is proposing to increase the excise tax on cigarette purchases from $1.01 to $1.95 per pack. It's a good solution but, just as with everything above, there are plenty of opponents on this point.

            While we've focused on some outlandish myths here so far, a position against a tobacco tax can at least be rational. It can be tricky for the federal government to profit from an activity they also publicly oppose, and as reason dictates, if you tax something you'll get less of it, putting long-term funding in jeopardy.

            Yet, experience over the last two decades does not support the opponents' case. In the last 20 years there have been three increases in the cigarette tax (1993, 2003, and 2009), and with each increase, federal revenue has gone up. Every state that has increased its share of cigarette taxes has seen increased revenue, taking in over $25.7 billion dollars last year -- with 14 states earmarking those tobacco taxes for education-related services.

            While there is evidence to suggest that tobacco tax revenue levels out over time (as fewer people take up the habit), a Congressional Budget Office report suggests that the long term funding from a tax increase is incredibly stable and, beyond the 10-year window in the President's budget, does a considerable job on its own to actually reduce the deficit (largely because less smoking means lower healthcare spending).

            And to top it off, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, this increase would also save an estimated 626,000 premature deaths from tobacco use, reduce future health costs by $42 billion dollars, and prevent some 1.7 million kids from ever picking up a cigarette.

            Here in California, 50 cents on every pack of cigarettes funds First Five California, or the California Children and Families Commission, which has been operating for the past 12 years in all 58 counties across the state to deliver on the promise of Proposition 10: to use every available method to ensure educational equity and school readiness for every child in the state.

            First Five has in turn helped keep funding available for California's Children's Health insurance Program, and continues to invest in and promote early learning opportunities around the state.

            Add these examples to overall savings we've shown in Myth #3 and you have a significant amount of funding to make early education a real possibility for all children in the country. So with nothing left to stand on, opponents turn to their last myth: Any plan to increase early childhood education is a government takeover doomed to failure.

              Myth #6: A National Effort is Doomed to Failure

              While there is something to be said for having a rigorous debate, when a policy is this well-studied, shrinks the achievement gap, improves over-all academic performance, and is well positioned with a stable funding plan, we should really be asking how quickly we can get early education in place for every child rather than whether we should at all.

              In the face of mountains of evidence, however, opponents have moved from principled opposition to out-right demagoguery, leaning on the boogey-man of a national take-over of education. This fallacy largely resides in the imagination of opponents, making it slippery to counter and even harder to envision.

              Thankfully, the President hasn't even come close to proposing this type of hyperbolic, monolithic government-oppression-via-preschool that some fear.

              In fact, he's made a very simple proposal: let states educate their children locally; no mandate, no order, just funding to expand preschool to the millions of children in this country who don't have access or can't afford a program in their community.

              Georgia and Oklahoma are already leading the field, funding their programs with state dollars at below average costs and helping to enroll a significant number of 4-year olds at the same time. Using supplemental funding from the federal government, these programs can not only expand access, but increase quality at the same time.

              The administration is looking to take these policies and help replicate them in all states with the funding and support they deserve -- the very type of funding that has helped our international peers create universal pre-K for every child in their countries.

              As with any new national proposal there is ample room for debate:

              How do we define quality?

              How do we expand access?

              How far can we extend support to families above poverty but still in need?

              Yet, we won't make any progress in answering these questions if we waste time and energy imagining problems that don't exist.

              As Secretary Arne Duncan says, bringing this policy in to reality will provide for "the largest expansion of educational opportunity in the 21st century." All this while saving billions of dollars and developing a workforce -- and a society -- that can compete in the global economy.

              Not bad for a bunch of myths.

              Reynaldo Fuentes is a research associate in the Children & Families Program for The Center for the Next Generation.

              Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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