by Kevin Muirhead, as originally published in The Patriot-News /

As an educator with more than 30 years of experience, I sincerely believe early-childhood education benefits children, their families, and their communities. From improved academic outcomes to the economic savings to schools and states, the benefits of high-quality early childhood education are irrefutable.

The National Education Association, which is committed to advancing the cause of public education, states: “Research shows that providing a high-quality education for children before they turn five yields significant long-term benefits.

One well-known study, the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, found that individuals who were enrolled in a quality preschool program ultimately earned up to $2,000 more per month than those who were not.

Young people who were in preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school, to own homes, and have longer marriages. Other studies, like The Abecedarian Project, show similar results. Children in quality preschool programs are less likely to repeat grades, need special education, or get into future trouble with the law.

Early childhood education makes good economic sense, as well. In Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a High Public Return, a high-ranking Federal Reserve Bank official pegs its return on investment at 12 percent, after inflation.”

Early-childhood education yields significant immediate benefits as well. During their early years, children go through critical stages of development, and consistent, high-quality early childhood education can have more immediate but long-lasting, beneficial effects on the overall development of children.

High-quality early childhood education programs that provide developmentally appropriate curricula enable children to develop specific cognitive skills at the appropriate age. Language development occurs at a rapid pace in children between the ages of one and five years old.

Children who are secure in their environment and with the people around them are more likely to engage in frequent, age-appropriate conversations. These daily interactions lead to more advanced language skills by promoting vocabulary development and conversation skills.

More advanced language skills lead to better social skills, which lead to success in school which, by its nature, is a highly social environment. In my experience, I have found that children who know how to share, cooperate with others, take turns, follow directions, and communicate their needs and feelings are more likely to take responsibility for their actions and take ownership of their learning.

Granted, there are other studies that refute some of the benefits of early education. For example, a 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study of Head Start – the country’s largest government-sponsored preschool program – found that 1st grade economically disadvantaged students with access to Head Start demonstrated almost no greater cognitive or emotional development than demographically similar students without access.

I would argue that such results are not indicative of the value of early-childhood education but of the value of early-childhood education programs.

Government-funded prekindergarten has failed to deliver consistent results because grants are distributed from federal and state governments to early-childhood education programs, which ends up holding providers accountable to bureaucracies rather than to students and their families.

Quality early-childhood education programs are and should be student-based. I believe in the premise put forth by Ben Zimmer and Daniella Rohr in their article in Education Week: “The families served by early-childhood education programs are in a better position than government bureaucrats to evaluate the quality of those programs.”

When programs risk losing support because of student flight, imagine how much greater their incentive would be to win those students back.

Student-based models consistently eliminate wasteful spending, improve instructor professional development, and encourage the adoption of innovative pedagogical and nutritional programs to attract and retain families.

In Pennsylvania, policymakers are clearly not as focused on early-childhood education (including kindergarten) as those of most other states.

This, I believe, has and will continue to result in limited access to quality programming for our children. Pennsylvania policymakers need to not only focus their efforts on developing and funding early-childhood education programs but also ensure such programs provide the quality necessary to meet the needs and desires of the students and their families.

In the meantime, parents will have to continue to seek out and take advantage of the quality early-childhood programs offered in the private sector. Remember, it’s never too late for early-childhood education.