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Benefits of early childhood education persist into high school, study says

Participation in high-quality early childhood education has persistent effects on academic performance and might save a lot of money for school districts, according to a new study out Thursday.

The study, from the American Educational Research Association, found long-lasting payoffs in three areas: increased high school graduation rates, reduced special education placement and reduced instances of grade retention. 

"Those are important outcomes," said Greg Duncan, professor of education at University of California, Irvine and part of a team of researchers from five universities who conducted the study.

"To have a child spend an extra year in a grade, adds another $8- or $9,000 to the cost of educating that child."

Researchers evaluated the results of 22 studies, published between 1960 and 2016, which tracked the performance of students enrolled in early childhood education programs into grade school – comparing outcomes with peers who did not participate. Participation in high-quality, classroom-based preschool reduced future special education placement by 8.1 percentage points, decreased grade retention by 8.3 percentage points, and increased high school graduation rates by 11.4 percentage points. 

American Educational Research Association

"I think we concentrate a lot on achievement impacts and socio-emotional impacts, but if you think about the economic impacts, things like grade retention and special education are very important," said Duncan. 

The overwhelming majority of the studies researchers analyzed (as well as the overall canon of early childhood education research) evaluate federal and state-funded programs, which primarily serve children from low-income families. Kids who grow up in families with fewer resources are at higher risk for negative education outcomes, and preschool programs are often a point of intervention.

Investments in publicly-funded early childhood education programs are on the rise across the country. California has started to reinvest in subsidized child care and preschool that serve poor families, but the funding remains $500 million below pre-recession levels, with 67,000 fewer slots.

Researchers say upping those investments could save money down the road.

"Early childhood education programs on balance seem to be effective for these important school outcomes," said Duncan. "These differences are big enough to translate into real dollars being saved for K-12 schooling."