Preschool Has Long-Term Benefits, New Study Shows, Proving Why It Needs To Be Universal

Ask any childhood expert, and they'll tell you that early education programs are important to a toddler's brain and behavioral development. Preschool prepares children for kindergarten and higher grades, and ultimately sets them up for success in a number of complex learning subjects. Now new research has found that preschool has long-term benefits for kids, thus proving why early childhood education programs should be universal.

A new study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management discovered that kids in Oklahoma who went through universal preschool performed well academically even years after graduating from the program, according to The Seattle Times. In particular, researchers from Georgetown University followed middle school students who attended Tulsa's high-quality universal pre-K program and found that, even after eight years, they continued to do better in math, were more likely to take advanced courses, and were less likely to repeat a grade than kids who didn't enroll.

Report co-author Bill Gormley, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, said of the findings, according to The Sarasota Herald-Tribune,

The most important finding was that the kids who are in pre-K are less likely to be retained a grade. That’s super important because the consequences of grade retention ... tend to be quite negative.

Previous research has shown that repeating a grade offers little to no benefits to students. For one, students who are held back do not perform better academically; instead, they do as well as, if not worse than, students who have moved on a grade, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Kids who repeat a grade also experience negative effects on their social and emotional development, including having less friends and a poorer sense of self, AAP stated.

Gormley said of this key finding, according to The Herald-Tribune,

Any policy intervention that can substantially reduce the likelihood of grade retention is a tremendous boon for the kids and their families and ultimately a boon for taxpayers.

The long-term gains of universal preschool did not appear across the board, though. In the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management study, black students did not see the same benefits as their white or Latinx peers — findings similar to other research on the effects of pre-K, according to NPR. But, Gormley told NPR, all kids who attended Tulsa's preschool program, including black students, were less likely to repeat a grade later on in their academic career.

In a lot of ways, the research out of Georgetown University is groundbreaking. That's because it's one of the first long-term studies to quantify the benefits of universal preschool through middle school, according to NPR. Gormley and his team began to track kids who enrolled in Tulsa's program soon after Oklahoma implemented one of the United States' first universal pre-K program in 2001, NPR reported.

The study is also a marked departure from research that claimed to debunk the long-lasting benefits of universal preschool, which led to controversy in early childhood education circles. In 2015, scientists from Vanderbilt University published a report on Tennessee's pre-K program that suggested any gains made in preschool faded after one year, according to U.S. News. Critics of universal preschool, as U.S. News pointed out, used this study as proof that pre-K doesn't offer kids any real benefit—despite the large body of evidence suggesting early childhood education better prepares kids for higher grades. Proponents of universal pre-K, on the other hand, considered to be a limited look at a broad topic.

If nothing else, the Georgetown University study confirms why high-quality universal pre-K should be implemented in every state. In order for all kids to have a chance to succeed in school, they need to be given the right tools from when they are young.

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