Nationwide High-Quality, Universal Pre-K Could Significantly Reduce Achievement Gaps

What would happen if the United States established a universal, high-quality pre-K program for all four-year-olds? While the establishment of such a program would be a massive undertaking and is unlikely to become an immediate reality, it’s worth engaging in this sort of thought experiment in an effort to understand the effects such a nationwide program might have. In a new report commissioned by the Center for American Progress, researchers at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) seek to discern the effects that a high-quality, nationwide pre-K program for four-year-olds would have on the country’s youngest learners.

Let’s start with what we know about the current state of early education in America. Right now, children in the lowest quintile of family income begin kindergarten with academic skills about twenty months behind those of children in the top quintile. And Hispanic and African American children, on average, enter kindergarten anywhere from 9 to 10 months behind in math and 7 to 12 months behind in reading compared to their white peers. We also know that those kindergarten gaps are difficult to make up and, therefore, often persist into later grades.

High-quality pre-K programs have been proven to reduce these achievement gaps at kindergarten entry and even lead to long-term life benefits for children. Some evidence suggests that economically disadvantaged children reap long-term benefits from high-quality pre-K, including higher test scores, lower rates of grade repetition, and higher graduation rates. And, some studies have even found a link between access to pre-K and positive effects in other domains, such as greater physical and mental health and lower rates of involvement with the criminal justice system.

Access to high-quality pre-K programs, however, is currently quite limited. For example, state-funded pre-K programs serve less than one-third of four-year-olds across the country. And, according to this new report, even when children are enrolled in a pre-K program African American, Hispanic, and children from low-income families are less likely to attend a high-quality pre-K classroom (“High-quality” is defined here as a classroom earning a score of five or higher out of a possible seven points on the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale. This rating scale looks at indicators such as the quality of staff-child interactions, activities available for students, and the physical layout of the classroom.)

Knowing all this, it’s understandable why researchers would be interested in understanding the effects that universal access to high-quality pre-K programs for all four-year-olds could have on the achievement gaps we talk so much about. For the current study, researchers at NIEER examined what the impacts would be of scaling up two pre-K programs widely recognized as high-quality: Tulsa and Boston. To measure the impacts, the researchers based their calculations on the average effects calculated in evaluations of Tulsa’s and Boston’s programs. These two programs were chosen not only because they’re high-quality, but also due to the fact that they represent a wide variety of demographics, program design, and geography.

The researchers found that high-quality universal pre-K would significantly narrow or virtually close achievement gaps in math and reading at kindergarten entry for African American, Hispanic, and low-income children. For African American children the achievement gap with their white peers would decrease by 45 percent in math and 98 percent in reading (see chart below). For Hispanic children the results would be equally striking: a 78 percent reduction in the math achievement gap and a complete elimination of the gap in reading. Finally, the achievement gap between low- and high-income students would be decreased by 27 percent in math and 41 percent in reading.

Nationwide High-Quality, Universal Pre-K Could Significantly Reduce Achievement Gaps

But is it feasible to scale up pre-K programs like those in Boston and Tulsa to serve 100 percent of the country’s four-year-olds? There are several issues to deal with here, two of which are the cost of the program and the supply of qualified teachers. This report’s only reference to the cost of the program is to note that such an effort would require “a substantial national investment.” Just how substantial? It’s difficult to come up with exact figures without knowing the specific design of such a national program, but we have a few estimates.

President Obama has called for $75 billion over ten years for his Preschool for All initiative, though his plan is not universal, providing pre-K access only to low- and moderate-income four-year-olds. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth recently estimated that a universal, high-quality pre-K program for three- and four-year-olds along the lines of Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers would initially cost an additional $26 billion a year on top of what we’re already spending for pre-K, though they argue such a plan would pay for itself after 16 years due to savings in areas such as educational remediation, public health care, and the criminal justice system. And my colleague Alexander Holt has estimated that a universal pre-K program for four-year-olds would likely cost the government an additional $10-15 billion per year.

Assuming the government is willing to fund a national, high-quality pre-K program for four-year-olds, would there be enough qualified pre-K teachers to fill the classrooms? The Tulsa and Boston programs have a few important things in common: both require pre-K teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree, both pay their pre-K teachers on the same pay scale as K-12 teachers, and both are operated exclusively in the public school setting rather than utilizing a mixed delivery system as many other state and local programs do. The fact that pre-K teachers would have pay parity with K-12 teachers would certainly be helpful in recruiting more teachers, but it’s an open question of whether enough qualified early childhood teachers could be found or prepared to meet this new need.

Even if a universal, high-quality program was established, there would still need to be a good deal of work done to better connect pre-K to kindergarten and the later elementary grades. Too often students leave high-quality pre-K programs only to enter a K-12 education system that is separated from and unaligned with the learning that students have experienced prior to kindergarten entry (Paul Nyahn recently wrote about the important work the San Francisco School District is doing to build a bridge between pre-K and third grade).

To realize the most benefits for the most children, these issues would be addressed prior to implementing a national pre-K program for all four-year-olds. Ideally, a plan could be developed that offers services to both three- and four-year-olds since research suggests that two years of pre-K leads to significant improvement in children’s early literacy and numeracy skills. What this report makes clear is that these are obstacles worth overcoming for an effort that has a real chance of significantly reducing the achievement gap of students throughout the country."


Aaron Loewenberg is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. He is a member of the  Early & Elementary Education team, where he provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade.