Universal High-Quality Early Childhood Education Could Close the Achievement Gap at Age 5

New research shows that the benefits of early childhood education are significant.

Photo Credit: Rob Hainer via

Providing high-quality early childhood education to all American children from birth to age three has the potential to close the achievement gap between high- and low-income kids at ages three and five, according to new research by Greg J. Duncan and Aaron J. Sojourner. It would also likely cut the achievement gap in half for children at age eight.

To find these results, Duncan and Sojourner analyzed data from the Infant Health and Development program, which offered free, full-day, high-quality early childhood education to a randomly chosen group of kids ages one to three in eight sites across the country. While the children in the program were chosen because they had low birth weights, the researchers analyzed the impact of the program among children with different weights and argue that the findings would apply to all kids.

What they found was that the gap in IQ between income groups at age three would essentially be eliminated either with a completely universal program or with one targeted at low-income children. Surprisingly, they found that while a universal program would also eliminate the gap at age five, a more targeted one would erase just 72 percent of it. The authors posit that may be because of a different impact on children whose families have incomes above 180 percent of the poverty line. Similarly, their findings show that universal programs would cut the gap at age eight in half, while a targeted one would range between one third to one half.

Other research has found that high-quality preschool programs have a significant impact on the children who participate. Tennessee’s state-funded program increased students’ oral comprehension by 176 percent, picture vocabulary by 176 percent, letter-word identification by 75 percent, and quantitative concepts by 63 percent. Early Head Start, targeted at young low-income children, brings significant educational benefits. Later in life, at-risk children who had early childhood education are less likely to drop out of school, become teen parents, or get arrested for violent crime. Chicago’s preschool program brings $11 of economic benefits over children’s lifetimes for every dollar spent on it.

But just half of the country’s three-year-olds and 69 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in preschool programs. Meanwhile, the achievement gap between high-income and low-income children is wide. A language proficiency gap between worse off children and wealthy ones shows up as early as 18 months, at which point disadvantaged toddlers are several months behind their peers. The income-based achievement gap has been growing, with the gap in test scores of children at the bottom of the income scale and those at the top expanding by as much as 40 percent. The gap continues much later into life, when high-achieving low-income students are still less likely than their lowest-achieving high-income peers to obtain a college education.

The achievement gap based on income is now nearly twice as large as the one between black students and white students. Duncan and Sojourner note that they don’t investigate the impact of preschool on the racial gap, but analysis of other programs shows that it would have significant benefits for children of color. These children still fall far behind their white peers in college readiness, and while progress has been made in closing the gap for some, it is growing for Native American students.

The United States ranks at number 21 among developed peers in how much it spends on preschool education. But President Obama has proposed beefing up that investment by creating a universal preschool program. He would spend $75 billion to over the next decade to expand access to low- and middle-income children.

Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

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