Informing Investments in Preschool Quality and Access in Cincinnati

Evidence of Impacts and Economic Returns from National, State, and Local Preschool Programs

by Lynn A. Karoly, Anamarie Auger

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Research Questions

  1. Do high-quality preschool programs produce favorable effects for participating children and their families, what are the magnitudes of the impacts, and how long do the beneficial effects last?
  2. Is there evidence of a positive return on investment when public dollars are used to pay for such programs?

Cincinnati, Ohio, is one of a growing number of U.S. cities seeking to expand access to and raise the quality of preschool programs, especially for the city's most vulnerable children. To inform stakeholders regarding potential investments designed to expand preschool access and quality, this report compiles the most-reliable research evidence concerning the short- and long-run effects of high-quality preschool programs for participating children and the associated costs, benefits, and economic returns. Our review draws on evidence from rigorous evaluations of full-scale U.S. preschool programs implemented at the national, state, and local levels. We provide evidence for specific programs, as well as results from syntheses across multiple preschool program evaluations. We assemble evidence of the impacts of the preschool programs on children's school readiness. In cases where children have been followed beyond the preschool years, we also consider research regarding longer-term effects. Attention is also given to evidence of impacts for universal versus targeted programs and for programs of varying intensity.

Key Findings

  • There are numerous examples of real-world preschool programs with rigorous evaluations that show improvements in school readiness for participating children.
  • Favorable impacts have been demonstrated for part- and full-day preschool programs, as well as one- and two-year programs, but the research is not definitive about the comparative effectiveness of these options.
  • High quality is a common element among the preschool programs with the largest effects on school readiness and with sustained effects at older ages.
  • Children across the income spectrum may benefit from high-quality preschool, but the impacts tend to be larger for more-disadvantaged children.
  • High-quality preschool programs show sustained benefits for other aspects of school performance other than achievement scores, such as lower rates of special education use, reduced grade repetition, and higher rates of high school graduation.
  • Improving the alignment between preschool and the early elementary grades may help sustain the initial boost in cognitive and noncognitive skills from preschool participation.
  • High-quality preschool programs represent a significant investment of resources, but that investment may be paid back through improved outcomes during the school-age years and beyond.

This research was supported through a contract from the Cincinnati Business Committee and the United Way of Greater Cincinnati and was conducted jointly within RAND Education and RAND Labor and Population.

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