Benefits from good preschool could be big

Published 3:05 pm Monday, December 25, 2017

It’s a soft sell — come and listen to renowned figures who have studied the benefits of educating very young children, and maybe people will leave charged up to support more and better preschool programs in Mississippi.

With that in mind, the University of Mississippi’s Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning brought two of the most renowned figures in early childhood learning to Jackson earlier this month — Craig and Sharon Ramey.

The Rameys are the prime movers behind a series of studies looking at the benefits of rigorous, intensive preschool starting with infants and keeping them until age 5. Those studies show big benefits for the effort, benefits that extend well into adulthood and help the students in surprising ways.

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For Craig Ramey, extending similar opportunities to poor children today is the key to giving them a fair shot at success later in life.

“The function of the early education is to level the playing field,” he said.

The results he cites are impressive. Poor children who went through preschool programs overseen by the Rameys saw their IQs stay at about the national average through age 5, while similar children who didn’t go saw their IQs fall below the national average and stay low.

Students who benefited from those preschools have experienced long-lasting benefits. By age 30, they were four times more likely to graduate from college than children who didn’t attend. They were substantially more likely to have a full-time job and make more money, and less likely to be receiving public assistance. They were also healthier, more likely to have delayed the birth of their first child, and even reported being emotionally closer to their parents. And mothers benefited as well, being much more likely to have continued their education than the mothers of non-attending children.

Overall, Ramey calculates that there were $7 in benefits for every dollar spent on the program.

But – and here’s the hitch – just any old preschool isn’t good enough.

Figures collected by Mississippi First show almost 75 percent of all 4-year-olds attend some kind of program outside the home, but the numbers are lower at younger ages. That high proportion is in part due to the heavy concentration of Head Start programs serving 4-year-olds and some 3-year-olds. But the benefits from federally funded Head Start, studied nationwide, appear patchy. “Initial gains rapidly dissipated once children began formal schooling,” is how a Brookings Institute report put it over the summer. Mississippi’s much smaller Early Learning Collaboratives might be more promising, because they adhere to standards from the National Institute for Early Education Research. But the state-funded collaboratives are much smaller, with only 2,200 students statewide.

Overall, Brookings found “conflicting evidence on enduring pre-k effects.” Readiness for kindergarten almost always improves, but long-lasting effects are harder to find.

This may be because many preschool programs don’t start nearly as early as the Rameys, who typically took in infants younger than six months. Even young children may be harmed by poverty in such a way that they have a hard time catching up.

“If we don’t get a certain segment of society started right in the beginning, we’re not very good at changing those odds,” Ramey said.

That’s certainly an issue in the Magnolia State.

Clearly, any program that provided high-quality environments for a majority of Mississippi children from infancy to age 5 would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Ramey, though, would argue that it’s worth it, saying it’s “good for our society broadly and good for individuals who happen to get the shorter end of the stick.”

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at jeffamy.