Education and Skills

Why we need to invest in pre-school education

Ellen Frede
Deputy Director, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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Since the inception of Head Start 50 years ago, our understanding of the importance of the early years for young children’s success has steadily grown. Now, a broad coalition of local, state and federal policy-makers, school leaders, economists, business leaders, neurologists, and even military and police officers tout the benefits of investing in high quality preschool education. We now know that high quality preschool, often called pre-K, can be provided at large scale and still be effective at improving children’s school success.

Because pre-K is so important to creating lifelong benefits, we are passionate about expanding opportunities for young children to access high-quality, effective and affordable preschool education.

We are passionate about expanding opportunities for young children.

As the new Deputy Director for Early Learning at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I’m focused on expanding our early education work from Washington State, where we have supported early learning since 2005, to a broader audience and scale. I’ve spent my career as a teacher and a researcher studying early childhood education. I know how important it is for children to start school ready to succeed.

That’s why I believe we are accountable, first and foremost, to children and their families.

Benefits of High-Quality Preschool

All parents want the best for their kids, and the research is clear that high-quality preschool leads to educational, social and economic success for all children. Research shows:

  • Greater rates of high school graduation;
  • Reduced special education and grade repetition;
  • Fewer behavior problems and less delinquency;
  • Improved achievement test scores;
  • Decreased smoking and drug use;
  • Overall health improvement;
  • Increased employment and earnings;
  • Decreased costs to government and taxpayers, including lowering the costs of K-12 education, social services, crime and health care.

Quality Makes A Difference

The quality of a preschool education makes a real difference for students. Makes sense, right? But parents often don’t know what to look for, and even if they do, there simply aren’t enough high-quality preschools available that parents can afford. Too many children don’t have access to a quality pre-K learning experience.

Higher quality preschool leads to stronger, more lasting academic and societal gains. Based on research, higher quality programs are those that support educators with resources and professional development, and intentionally create age-appropriate playful learning experiences, in an environment that values early education.

Higher quality preschool leads to stronger, more lasting academic and societal gains.

Preschool programs that successfully create lasting academic gains as well as long-term societal benefits share specific, replicable features that can be customized to fit local community needs. Learn more about the characteristics of high-quality pre-K here.

And, because the world into which our young children will graduate is constantly changing, quality depends on continuous improvement.

Promising Practices

As we begin to form our expanded early learning strategy, we intend to collaborate with a wide range of partners—especially early childhood educators—to identify opportunities and build on the efforts of the other foundations, advocates, and early childhood leaders who have worked on these issues for many years.

We will explore research, tools, interventions and advocacy that will:

  • Increase quality and access in federal, state and local pre-K and Head Start, and
  • Expand professional opportunities for early childhood educators.

We also know that children need healthy, stable families, strong communities, and support at every step of their education from birth through college. While our home state of Washington serves as a learning lab with a deep commitment to strengthening all of the systems of support for children and families, as we extend our early learning work to a national audience we are focusing on expanding access to high-quality preschool in order to make the biggest difference for the most children.

We believe that by successfully supporting and scaling up access to high-quality preschool, whether in Head Start, state, city or school district pre-K, more young children will enter school prepared and achieve ongoing academic success.

This article is published in collaboration with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Dr. Ellen Frede is a widely published researcher and former teacher with extensive experience in early childhood program implementation and administration.

Image: Students play with their iPads at the Steve Jobs school in Sneek. REUTERS/Michael Kooren 

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