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Transition 3: Preschool and Early Childhood Education (Ages 4–6)

The goal is to have children with pre-reading and foundational math skills and school-appropriate behavior by first grade. More specifically, the goals for all early childhood education programs, with parental inputs and reinforcement, are to create a “mobility mentality” consisting of a growth mindset (the belief that success is learned, not preordained), instilling confidence in children to succeed, and raising their aspirations, as well as those of their parents. They also need the grit and character development to see setbacks as hurdles to overcome, not impenetrable walls, and the persistence, if they confront a closed gate, to find ways to open it or discover other paths. Fostering these characteristics in children from disadvantaged backgrounds, along with instilling in parents the ability to take these lessons home with them and apply them, are crucial elements.

But the challenge is great. Only 38 % of American 3-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education programs (as compared to an average of 70 % among the 34 richest OECD nations; OECD 2015). Moreover, U.S. children tend to enter early childhood education at age 4. Even then, only 66 % of 4-year-olds were enrolled in 2012 (the OECD average was 84 %), a slight decrease from 68 % in 2005, when the OECD average was 79 %. [1]

It is well documented that there are large gaps in early childhood education and school readiness by parental education and income, which were most pronounced in the U.S. compared to other Anglo nations and which only recently have begun to stabilize (Bradbury et al. 2012). These gaps are larger now than in the past, in part because parents at the top spend vastly more in time and money on developmentally oriented goods and activities than those at the bottom (Kaushal et al. 2011; Kalil et al. 2012). We know that high-quality early childhood education programs are critical for development. Quality programs include productive teacher-child interactions, encouragement from teachers, and opportunities to engage with varied materials. Teacher quality and retention are also key ingredients for producing better outcomes for disadvantaged children. But these conditions are hard to establish or maintain in low-income areas (Duncan 2014).

President Obama's national drive to improve early childhood education for these children is central to the effort to overcome these gaps but is hampered by differential state take-up rates in expanding preschool to all children (Duncan and Magnuson 2011). Cross-national research in Denmark and France, where universal early childhood education is the norm, shows that effective high-quality preschools do reduce the slope of the relationship of achievement to family education background. But even so, the remaining differences in both cognitive and behavioral outcomes are still significant when outcomes are ranked by parental education (Bingley and Westergaard-Nielsen 2012; Dumas and Le Franc 2012). This suggests that while early childhood education can improve opportunity and mobility from the bottom, it is not by itself the “magic bullet” for achieving desirable levels of IGM.

Cumulative Gaps?

In many ways, the U.S. system of supports and institutions performs well enough to maintain but not reduce SES-related outcome gaps once school begins (Ermisch et al. 2012; Duncan and Magnuson 2013). Hence, the gap at the beginning of elementary school is key—assuming smaller gaps upon the start of grade school would in fact be maintained and not exacerbated. We do know from longitudinal studies that there are large gaps at 9 months that widen by 24 months. This is worrisome because cross-sectional studies reveal wide gaps based on pre-K assessments at ages 4–5 (see Bradbury et al. 2012). [2] Thus, we need effective, scalable, and replicable interventions before preschool, as well as through the preschool period, if we are to make progress in improving mobility for children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

  • [1] See OECD (2014) and figures in the section entitled “What Makes a Difference Early in Life?”.
  • [2] Whereas the data we have on young children follows the same children from ages 9–24 months, we do not have follow-up data on the same children as they exit preschool or enter elementary school.
 
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