Early childhood education continues to be a high priority across the nation. Total public funding at all levels now exceeds $30 billion annually (Council of Economic Advisers, 2016), which amounts to a doubling of investment over the past two decades (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1999), while public-private sector initiatives, such as Pay for Success, have also helped expand access (Temple & Reynolds, 2015). Today, nearly half of all four-year-olds in the country participate in prekindergarten and Head Start (National Institute of Early Education Research, 2017), and more than 80% of kindergartners attend full-day programs (U.S. Department of Education, 2017), both of which represent large increases from previous decades.
Yet much of this increasing emphasis does not take into account two unfortunate realities. First, the size of the achievement gap by family income is large and increasing in the U.S. and internationally (Belfield & Levin, 2007; Braveman & Gottleib, 2014; Piketty, 2014). In the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 20% of U.S. 4th graders from low-income families were proficient readers compared to 52% of students from higher-income families (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). This 32-point gap, which has increased by a third over the past decade, indicates that, to be effective, services must be proportionate to the need (Braveman & Gottleib, 2014; Takanishi, 2016).
A one- or two-year preschool program, even if high-quality, can reduce this gap by only about a third (Barton & Coley, 2009; Reynolds, Hayakawa, et al., 2017). Early gaps in school readiness magnify over time and contribute to disparities in achievement proficiency and school completion. To realistically address these challenges, multiyear and multicomponent approaches that integrate services are needed.
The second unfortunate reality is that despite the overall evidence of positive benefits for good-quality programs, impacts of early childhood programs across all cultural and social contexts vary substantially in magnitude, consistency, and duration. Too much variation in program quality is a major reason, as is the fact that later education is not aligned to early learning (Camilli et al., 2010; Reynolds & Temple, 2008; Zigler, Gilliam, & Jones, 2006). Even if large and sustained effects and greater alignment do occur, these programs are rarely scaled to entire populations.
Given the size of achievement disparities, the relatively modest levels of achievement proficiency of students worldwide, and the limited reach of current programs, longer and more comprehensive strategies are needed. They also must have the capacity to scale since only a small fraction of programs are ever scaled to the population level (O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009; Spoth et al., 2013). Multilevel programs in the first decade of life can redress these trends.
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