Massachusetts has long been the nation’s leader in education, first to publicly fund education, first to provide universal public education 6 to 16, first to offer kindergarten. Massachusetts still gets top scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, often called the “nation’s report card,” but that place at the top is far from assured. While other states have increased investment in early education, funding in Massachusetts has declined. International education leaders have moved even further ahead: South Korea recently mandated universal access to education from age 3, and China aims to provide 70% of its young children with three years of preschool by 2020.
Now, while the Massachusetts Legislature considers Governor Patrick’s bold proposal to dramatically increase young children’s access to high-quality early education, leaders from New Jersey travel to the State House on Wednesday to deliver a strong message. Early education works.
The Garden State has the nation’s best system of universal, high-quality early education. Indeed, research from the National Institute for Early Education Research released the same day as the Beacon Hill briefing finds the impact on closing the achievement gap is still evident in the fifth grade.
The New Jersey model provides high-quality early education to all children in 31 of the state’s cities with a high proportion of children from low-income families. The “Abbott Preschool Program” was developed in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that the state had not met its obligations to provide these children with an education adequate to meet the challenges of today’s world.
Abbott Preschool dramatically transformed early childhood care and education in these communities. Like many of their peers throughout the nation, most children had been attending preschool and child care programs of poor to mediocre quality, and they were entering kindergarten as much as 18 months behind. Thus began a nearly inevitable slide toward failure and dropping out for far too many.
Rather than simply replace this system, New Jersey transformed it. Two thirds of the children are served by community-based providers — for-profits, faith based, nonprofits, and Head Starts — and one-third attend public school pre-kindergarten. No matter what the setting, high standards must be met. Teachers were required to have a four-year college degree and certification in early childhood. The state created a loan fund and sent teachers back to school to get this training. Pay was doubled for community-based early educators who completed their education. Class size was capped at 15. Coaches were assigned to every classroom to help teachers improve their practice. Districts and the state carefully monitored progress on learning and teaching. Programs that could not produce results were replaced.
The results are clear. Children who attended one year of the program score higher in language arts and literacy, math, and science. Those who attended two years make even larger gains so that by 5th grade they are nearly a year ahead of those who did not attend pre-kindergarten. Both grade retention and special education were substantially lower for those who attended Abbott pre-K. New Jersey has already started saving money by the prevention of school failure, as both retention and special education placement are strong predictors of later dropping out.
These findings not only rebut those who assert that pre-K is a waste of money because gains inevitably fade out, but they also point to the importance of high quality in ensuring persistent gains. It may also be important that Abbott pre-K was the leading edge of systemic education reform with support for greater success pushed on up through the schools. As some other approaches to pre-K, including much more targeted programs, have failed to deliver these kinds of long-term gains, Massachusetts policymakers should take a hard look at the New Jersey model.
Adopting a version of the New Jersey model of universal pre-K would secure Massachusetts’ position as a leader in education and do much to ensure that the commonwealth maintains its top position in achievement nationally and internationally as we move through the 21st century.
W. Steven Barnett is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.