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Study Reveals Early Education is Good for All Children

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Kids who attend center-based early care and education the year before kindergarten have higher math and reading scores regardless of the income level of their neighborhood, according to new research by AU School of Public Affairs (SPA) Associate Professor Taryn Morrissey.

The paper, “Center-based Early Care and Education in Children’s School Readiness: Do Impacts Vary by Neighborhood Poverty?” was written by Morrissey and Katie Vinopal, a former SPA PhD student now on faculty at The Ohio State University, and appears in the journal Developmental Psychology.

Using data from the 2010-2011 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort and poverty data from the Census’s American Community Survey, the researchers analyzed academic outcomes of 12,430 children who participated in the federal Head Start program or other center care. All students’ test scores benefited from attending center care, with some limited evidence that children in moderate high-poverty neighborhoods (where 20 to 40 percent of residents are poor) showed particularly strong, positive associations between center care and test scores.

“It’s like a rising tide lifting all boats,” says Morrissey. “Center-based care and education appear to be equally effective in poor neighborhoods. This means it benefits all children, but also that it’s not necessarily closing the achievement gap, which may be due to program access and quality differences across neighborhoods.”

Although not addressed in this study, she notes that the quality of the programs varies. Families in poorer communities generally have lower access to early education programs and children are more likely to enter school less prepared. Morrissey suggests there could be some benefit to promoting access and care quality to raise young children’s achievement in disadvantaged and underserved neighborhoods. Also, because Head Start only serves about 40 percent of four-year-olds in poverty, expanding programs could help.

“Head Start has its critics and a lot of that has been unfair,” says Morrissey. “We can’t expect a three-hour-a-day program for one year of someone’s life to change their entire trajectory. We do know from a wealth of research that Head Start is effective at promoting learning among kids. This study shows this learning is pretty consistent across neighborhoods.”

Morrissey says she was inspired to examine this issue after working at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration when she looked at the effects of neighborhood composition on young children’s well-being, including food insecurity and education. She is doing further research on the impact of neighborhoods on children’s academic growth over time in school.