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RAND Solution

Improving Access to Early Childhood Education

Challenge

Achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students in language arts and mathematics can form early, with some children trailing behind in school readiness measures when they enter kindergarten. In an era of fiscal constraints, could an increase in the funding for effective preschool programs help to close these gaps and reduce costs later on?

Context

Debates about K-12 education reform in California have been spurred by the state's desire to raise overall student achievement, close achievement gaps, and ensure that all students can succeed and move on to become productive citizens. Moreover, budgetary constraints have highlighted the importance of maximizing the return of public funds, despite limited resources.

The expansion of public funding for preschool education has become an integral part of this discussion, necessitating a strong evidence base to provide insight into the potential of such an expansion—and guidance in terms of how to best to implement it.

“There are many low-cost or no-cost things that California can do to improve its early childhood education. ”

Lynn Karoly, Senior Economist

Project Description

To help them consider options for reforming or expanding preschool education, state policymakers requested that RAND complete the California Preschool Study, a comprehensive analysis of publicly supported early childhood education efforts. This series of reports examined achievement gaps, documented the complex system of public funding for these programs, and collected and analyzed new data on program utilization and quality.

The study culminated in a 2009 policy analysis of the gaps in access and quality in the current early childhood education system and the resulting consequences for student achievement. By drawing on and integrating results from three preceding reports, experts provided policy options for improving preschool opportunities through efficiency gains, new policies, or additional resources.

Research Questions

  1. What are the overall achievement gaps among young children in California?
  2. What is the potential for effective preschool programs to close these gaps? How widespread is access to high-quality preschool programs in California?
  3. How can California allocate its limited resources for early care and education programs more efficiently?
  4. What steps can ensure success in the future, when more resources are available?

Key Findings & Recommendations

  • Disadvantaged children, who are more likely to start school behind and stay behind, are also the least likely to attend high-quality preschool.
    • Increasing access to high-quality preschool for disadvantaged children can narrow achievement gaps.
  • California's preschool system serves only half of eligible three- and four-year-olds and does not reward higher-quality providers.
  • In the short term, California can allocate existing resources more efficiently and support infrastructure for raising quality in the future.
    • In the longer term, new resources should expand access to and raise the quality of preschool programs for those who can benefit from them the most.

Impact

RAND's work provided a blueprint for California policymakers to address the demonstrated shortcomings of their state's early childhood education system, despite fiscal constraints.

In 2008, the Governor's Committee on Education Excellence called for implementation of a comprehensive preschool package and cited the first of the California Preschool Study reports, which showed the benefits of a well-designed preschool program, as well as the second, which showed the current system of early care and education funding as a complex and inefficient set of programs.

These reports were also cited in hearings leading up to legislation that established an early-learning quality-improvement system and that consolidated and streamlined the state's existing preschool programs.

“In California, as a result of the RAND study … we know we need to do a better job of identifying those students that need the most help and make sure they have access to quality preschool programs.”

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell