Many low-income kids missing out on formal pre-K, study finds

Many low-income kids missing out on formal pre-K, study finds

(Mass.) The majority of early learners in Massachusetts are enrolled in government-supported education programs, but low-income families are far more likely to rely solely on family or other forms of informal education and childcare options, according to Harvard researchers.

Among three- and four-year-olds throughout the state, children in higher-poverty communities were 9 percentage points less likely to use formal education and care compared to children in lower-poverty communities, and less likely to use a combination of formal and informal programs by a measure of 6 percentage points.

According to a report released Tuesday by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, children in low-income families were instead 8 percentage points more likely to rely on informal education care only, and more likely to use parent or other family care only by a similar score.

Formal providers–which often have stricter requirements pertaining to class size as well as training and education levels of staff–include community-based centers, public pre-Kindergarten, and Head Start programs. Informal providers include licensed family child care centers, unlicensed non-relative care, and unlicensed non-parental relative care.

“We know that families rely on a variety of settings to meet the education and care needs of their young children,” authors of the report wrote. “Although more than half of children primarily use some type of formal education and care, there are clear differences in the types of education and care used between three-year-olds and four-year-olds, and across relatively high- and low-income communities.”

Research has shown that participation in high-quality childcare or pre-K programs can have a number of positive benefits for children–though there is disagreement on how long lasting some advantages are.

In some studies, children enrolled in early learning childcare have demonstrated increased levels of academic achievement, cognitive and social-emotional development, and are better able to adjust to different social environments than their peers.

Others have found that children who participate for two years in high-quality preschool programs are less likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system, and require academic remediation or special education services.

On the other hand, children attending Tennessee’s state-funded preschool program saw short term advantages, but few remained by the time they reached 3rd grade, according to the results of an ongoing study published in August by researchers at Vanderbilt University.

That said, they did find that Black children and English learners saw the some of the largest positive and statistically significant effects after participating in the Tennessee program.

State legislatures and university systems have taken steps in recent years to improve the quality of early education through increased state funding for preschool teacher training and increasing the number of slots for low-income families, as well as providing scholarships for early childhood educators pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

In Massachusetts, trained field workers conducted in-person visits to more than 90,500 households across the state to gather initial data on where preschool-age children spend their time.

Over a ten-month period, field workers collected household survey responses from the caregivers of 841 children, with about 24 percent of respondents living in the Greater Boston area, 35 percent living in Eastern Massachusetts, and 40 percent living in Western Massachusetts. Approximately 55 percent of the families resided in high-poverty communities.

Among all children involved, more than 51 percent were enrolled in a formal early education and care program, and 13 percent attended both formal and informal programs. More than 17 percent attended public pre-K; about 28 percent a community-based center; and slightly more than 6 percent were enrolled in Head Start.

Nearly 24 percent of all children spent their day cared for solely by a parent or guardian.

When researchers looked at socio-economic status, however, low-income households more often relied on family and informal education and care programs. More than 28 percent remained with a parent or guardian for the day, while almost 14 percent participated only in informal programs.

Slightly less than 48 percent of low-income children were enrolled only in formal programs, compared to more than 56 percent of their higher-income peers; and a little more than 10 percent were enrolled in a combination of formal and informal care and education programs, compared to about 16 percent of their higher income peers.

This would suggest that low-income children receive less exposure to highly-quality pre-K programs that may better prepare them for Kindergarten.

Researchers noted that the study is ongoing, and that the children in the sample are now 4- and 5-years old, with some still in early-childhood programs and others now in kindergarten. Follow-up surveys will being in January, with an emphasis on the characteristics of the early-childhood programs children attend, as well as any changes in students’ literacy, math, language, cognitive and social-emotional skills.

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