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Preschool has proven long-term benefits

COMMENTARY
The Asbury Park Press has published numerous editorials opposing preschool for children in high needs, urban districts, as well as expansion of the program to additional high poverty communities under the State's new school funding law. This commentary by ELC Executive Director David G. Sciarra appeared in the Press and online on July 26, 2009, in response to the newspaper's latest editorial opposing New Jersey's nationally recognized Abbott preschool program.

Preschool has proven long-term benefits

by David G. Sciarra

Several Asbury Park Press editorials have railed against state spending on preschool for 3- and 4-year-old children in New Jersey's poorest neighborhoods. But the July 19 editorial, "Preschool study not convincing," takes this opposition to new, and wholly irresponsible, heights.

An ongoing research evaluation by a Rutgers University research team shows disadvantaged children attending New Jersey's preschool program are better prepared for kindergarten and perform better in early elementary grades. The most recent installment of the study was released earlier this month.

Rather than acknowledge this mounting body of positive evidence, the editorial tries to discredit the research, even questioning the motives of the Rutgers researchers. These criticisms are baseless.

First, New Jersey has not had a quality preschool program for "10 years." It took many years and repeated court orders before the state put in place certified teachers, small classes, appropriate learning standards and other components of high-quality preschool. The Rutgers evaluation was then launched in 2005-06, the point when it became feasible to do so.

The editorial complains that the study "didn't address the long-term impact" of the preschool program, specifically whether the academic gains now found in early elementary grades will be sustained through high school. Well, how could it? Quality preschool has been widely available only for the last three or four years, so children having the benefit of the program have only reached the second or third grade.

Even so, a growing body of research demonstrates that high-quality preschool — programs similar to New Jersey's — produce long-term gains, including higher achievement levels and reduced school failure and dropouts. The authoritative "Teachers College Record" recently published a review of 123 such studies, finding that the gains from preschool did not disappear over time, but had real staying power. There is no longer any credible basis to support the claim that the effects of high-quality preschool disappear in later school years and into adulthood.

More troubling is the editorial's misrepresentation of the Rutgers study. The study clearly shows that program quality was high when the longitudinal evaluation began in 2005-06, and has gone up since. Children attending preschool made significant gains in language, reasoning and math skills right through to second grade. Children with preschool had much stronger vocabulary skills than other children, the key to improved reading comprehension in higher grades.

And, in a key finding ignored in the editorial, grade retention through the second grade was cut in half. Leaving children back to repeat a grade is expensive and a strong predictor of later school failure. By cutting down on grade retention, tax dollars are saved and graduation rates go up. Frankly, given the economic returns to taxpayers of investing in quality preschool, New Jersey should quickly move to enroll all disadvantaged children in the program across the state, even in our current downturn.

New Jersey's preschool program yields very high rates of return to taxpayers, and actually costs less per year than primary school. Yet the editorial deceptively compares the full cost of New Jersey's high-quality program to the costs of partial, lower-quality programs in Oregon and other states.

Prior to our preschool program, children in New Jersey's poor, racially isolated communities started kindergarten 18 months behind their suburban peers on vocabulary skills. It's ludicrous to suggest that they should have to wait until kindergarten or first grade to try and catch up, especially when advances in brain research show that children are ready to learn language skills, and much more, by age 3.

In the end, the Press' anti-preschool stance is not just belied by established science, research evidence and cost-benefit analyses. It's downright cruel to recommend that we deprive poor children of educational opportunities they need, and must have, to pursue their aspirations to become productive, adult citizens. But this is precisely what the Press editorial espouses. New Jersey has rejected, and will continue to reject, this shameful position.