This story was originally published by The Houston Chronicle, written by Erin Baumgartner and can be found here.

Photo: LM Otero, Associated Press

As a researcher who aims to understand how students can be best prepared for success when they start school, I am often asked when I meet someone new: “Does pre-K even matter?”

Though many types of early educational experiences can prove beneficial for children, including at-home care by a parent, guardian or other family member or care children receive in someone else’s home, a substantial body of research has shown that children who enroll in center-based early educational programs, such as preschools, nursery schools, day cares, or pre-K programs have greater readiness for school when they reach kindergarten, higher test scores and lower odds of being retained in later grades and higher incomes and lower crime rates in adulthood.

But, as many parents and guardians know, the cost of enrolling a child in one of these programs is often very high. In fact, a study by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, finds that the average cost of annual child care for a 4-year-old is higher than the annual cost of in-state tuition at a four-year public university in 24 states and Washington, D.C.

As a way to help families who are not able to afford high-quality early childhood education, a number of states, including Texas, have started offering no-cost pre-K education to students who are identified as at-risk, such as those who are economically disadvantaged, aren’t proficient in English or are homeless.

In Houston, this occurs through the public school system, with the Houston Independent School District (HISD) offering full-day, no-cost pre-K to 4-year-old students who qualify and to 3-year-old students when there are seats available.

In a series of recent studies conducted as part of the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) at Rice University, I have found that students who attend HISD pre-K programs are more likely to be academically ready for school at kindergarten entry than those who do not attend HISD pre-K. The students who do not attend HISD pre-K are likely a mix of students who have not attended any type of center-based early learning opportunity and those whose families have chosen learning opportunities outside of HISD.

As a result, the findings might actually be an underestimate of how much students benefit from HISD pre-K.

However, some argue that it is more than just attending school, but the quality of the programs that students attend that makes a difference in their academic outcomes. To test this idea, we evaluated the quality of the pre-K programs in HISD using a list of benchmarks developed by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

The characteristics associated with high-quality public pre-K programs include indicators like small class size, low student-teacher ratio, teacher education requirements and teacher professional development.

Using this list, we collected information from 50 of more than 150 pre-K programs in HISD, with participating campuses averaging just over 5 of 9 quality benchmarks.

Then we estimated the extent to which enrolling in a higher-quality program is associated with higher literacy scores at the end of pre-K. Surprisingly, the results of this study show that for most students, the quality of the program they are enrolled in is not associated with their achievement at the end of pre-K.

However, for certain at-risk student populations, program quality does matter. Notably, for students with limited English proficiency, being in a higher quality pre-K program is associated with higher literacy skills at the end of pre-K. This study also finds that students with limited English proficiency are less likely than their peers to be enrolled in higher-quality programs.

Putting these pieces together, we see that students who may find the greatest benefit from being enrolled in a high-quality program might be the least likely to be enrolled in such a program in HISD. Though this particular study is concentrated on HISD, the findings here mimic findings on other school districts.

So to those of you who wonder, “Does pre-K even matter?” The simple answer is yes.

The more complex answer is that high-quality early learning opportunities, such as those offered through public pre-K programs, might be particularly important to help level the early playing field between students who come from more and less advantaged backgrounds at school entry.

But we must ensure that all children have the opportunity to access these programs or the educational disparities we see from kindergarten through high school (and beyond) are likely to remain for years to come.

Erin Baumgartner is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University.

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