Just slightly more than half of Massachusetts 4-year-olds attend formal preschool programs while participation rates for 3-year-olds are even lower, according to preliminary results of a Harvard University study, which suggests the state may have a long road ahead in guaranteeing universal access to high-quality preschool.
The preliminary findings, which are estimates, shed a rare light on how many of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds are actually attending early education programs — a number state policy makers and early education advocates have had difficulty verifying. That’s because preschool programs encompass a mix of public and private programs, the latter of which do not have to report enrollment numbers to the state.
The participation rates, some advocates say, debunk a long-held public assumption that the vast majority of Massachusetts children enter kindergarten with formal preschooling, an experience that many educators and policy makers believe better prepares children for success in elementary schools.
“It’s a warning bell,” said Amy O’Leary, director of the Early Education for All campaign at Strategies for Children, a Boston-based organization. “To be an advocate of early education in a state where we are number one on a lot of benchmarks, people often wonder what the crisis is in early education. This is one step towards raising awareness of the need for more programs to serve children from birth to age 5.”
The study was launched this summer by the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to gain a greater understanding of the choices Massachusetts families make about early education — including whether they can find high-quality programs and if they prefer to keep their children at home — and the long-term effect on their children’s schooling.
The study aims to identify approaches to early education that yield strong academic results for students that could be replicated as part of the state’s effort to provide more high-quality preschool.
The researchers — Nonie Lesaux and Stephanie Jones — are billing the effort as a first-of-its-kind, large-scale, population-based study of young children’s learning and development. Previous research, they say, has generally focused on a specific population, such as low-income children, or one kind of early education setting.
“This will expand our understanding of the entire landscape of options,” Jones said.
The state Department of Early Education and Care has taken steps over the years to help boost the quality of the 9,000 early education programs that exist in the public and private sectors. Six years ago it introduced a quality rating system that takes into account whether programs use licensed educators, research-based curriculums, and other educational standards.
However, the department has only a limited amount of money for programs to help improve quality, while licensing remains largely based on health and safety standards.
The first phase of the study included a household survey that captured data on 444 children living in 69 census block groups across the state, which were used to generate the participation rate estimates. Specifically, it found 53 percent of 4-year-olds attended formal preschool programs, while only 39 percent of 3-year-olds did.
Eventually, the survey, along with the study, will encompass 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds who are representative of the state’s demographics and will chronicle their schooling over four years. That data set is expected to provide a more concise snapshot of early education across the state.
The household survey also asked parents and guardians about their hopes and concerns for their children’s education and future. Some 32 percent said they were most worried about the development of their children’s academic skills, 17 percent cited social-emotional development, and 16 percent flagged physical well-being.
Tom Weber, the state’s commissioner of early education and care, said the Harvard study will be invaluable, especially in tying student results to specific early childhood settings.
“I believe there is considerable potential for the Commonwealth to learn from these survey results and the ones that will follow, which will help us make important decisions about the quality of our system in Massachusetts,” he said. “We understand that Massachusetts, as well as the nation, has work to do in increasing access and improving quality across the system.”
He said the early findings on participation rates are consistent with data he has seen in other studies when taking into account how Harvard defined formal settings.
The Harvard researchers defined formal programs as those with classrooms, such as those at public schools, Head Start, or parochial schools. Massachusetts policy makers and advocates tend to use a broader definition that includes licensed programs run out of an individual’s home.
O’Leary said Strategies for Children has estimated about 70 percent of children are in formal programs. But that data, she said, does not always mesh with what the organization sees on the ground at elementary schools when viewing information about the experiences of incoming kindergartners, which seems more in line with the Harvard findings.
“It’s hard to get an accurate number,” she said.