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NMSU hosts Family Impact Seminar for legislators on cost-effectiveness of preschool programs

SANTA FE Members of the New Mexico Legislature learned during the Family Impact Seminar held in Santa Fe recently that high-quality early childhood programs, delivered to children from low-income families, are among the most effective and cost-effective public investments anyone has tested.

The Family Impact Seminar is a service project for the New Mexico Legislature provided each year by the New Mexico State University College of Agriculture and Home Economics' departments of Family and Consumer Science and Extension Home Economics to inform legislators of recent research on a specific topic.

This year's third annual seminar topic, because of interest expressed by the legislators, was "Early Childhood Development: The Economic, Social and Psychological Impact of Education and Care."

"A growing body of evidence shows that quality early childhood education and care is associated with positive psychological and emotional development, and academic success," said program co-organizer Bruce Jacobs, NMSU Extension health specialist. "These outcomes are associated with success in adult years, which in turn influences community and economic development."

Presenting the research findings were David Riley, associate dean, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology; Eugene Garcia, vice president, Arizona State University's Office for Education Partnership; and Arthur Reynolds, professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Institute of Child Development College of Education and Human Development.

"Our speakers represent the leaders in childhood development and education," said program co-organizer Charolette Collins, NMSU Extension specialist in the Strengthening Families Initiative program. "Their presentations were very informative for our guests."

Legislators present were Sens. Steve Komadina, R-Sandoval County; Leonard Lee Rawson, R-Dona Ana and Sierra counties; Mark Boitano, R-Bernalillo County; Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Bernalillo County; and Rod Adair, R-Chaves and Lincoln counties; and Reps. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Dona Ana County; Jimmie Hall, R-Bernalillo County; and Jeannette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties.

"Early experiences change the physical brain architecture and have a lasting effect," Riley said.

Early care and education programs impact the child's early literacy and self-control which gives them a better foundation for life. The 40-year study of the Perry Preschool Program indicates that 60 percent of the students graduated from high school compared to 40 percent of their peers who did not attend the preschool.

The Perry Preschool children as 40-year-old adults, according to Riley, were less likely to participate in criminal activity and more likely to be employed, as well as be homeowners, have savings accounts and the females were more likely to be married at age 27. Each of these indicators has a positive impact on the economy. Similar results were demonstrated by participants in the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program and the Carolina Abecedarian Program.

"At a minimum, the economic return should equal the amount invested," Reynolds said. "In each of the programs discussed here, there was a positive benefit ranging from $2.02 to $10.15 for every $1 spent."

The legislators also learned that studies are indicating that full-day kindergarten has a small and not lasting effect on the child's academic readiness, compared to pre-kindergarten through third grade interventions that strengthen learning gains and have long-term effects.

Reynolds told the legislators, "Although there is no cost-benefit studies of the effect of full-day kindergarten over half-day kindergarten, many studies have examined achievement gains at the end of kindergarten and in the early school grades. The average effect of full-day kindergarten on achievement at the end of kindergarten is roughly a two-month increase in achievement. This relatively small advantage largely disappeared by the end of first grade and did not re-emerge later."

"This is eye-opening information that will help us make decisions down the road," Rawson said.

"I found it quite interesting that full-day kindergarten is not as effective as we thought. From these reports it appears that it's better for us to not invest in full-day kindergarten but in quality pre-K programs," Garcia said. "I also learned that it's very effective to have parent resource classrooms with parents involved in our schools. It would help their literacy level as well."

Komadina agreed that it was interesting that full-day kindergarten did not have more of a lasting effect than half-day programs.

"As a medical doctor, I'm interested in the physiology of brain development, especially in the first two to four years of life. This further confirms my belief that sooner is better," Komadina said. "We need to continue to look at the research to determine the effectiveness of programs we provide and not protect our old beliefs if the research does prove it wrong."

The common elements of preschool programs showing high returns, according to Riley and Reynolds are:

?Opportunity for more than one year of participation: "Having children in preschool at age 4 is more effective than waiting until they enter kindergarten," Reynolds said. "In the Chicago program, children who had been in the preschool for two years were seven percent more ready for school than the national norm. Those who had no preschool were 22 percent below the national norm."

?Well-trained and compensated teachers. Both Riley and Reynolds indicated that the preschool teacher is an important part of the child's development and should receive compensation equal to an elementary school teacher.

?Class sizes under 18 and child to staff ratios less than 9 to 1.

?Comprehensive family services and parent involvement with the preschool program. An important part of the programs studied was the parent involvement, including parent resource rooms in the Chicago Child-Parent Centers.

?Average yearly cost per child no less than $5,000. "Many states under invest in public preschool programs," Reynolds said. "At this time, New Mexico, which is ranked 25th out of 38 states, is averaging $2,300 a year per child with only 7 percent of the 4-year-olds in New Mexico attending preschool, compared to such states as number-one-ranked Oklahoma that has 70 percent attending."

One reason for New Mexico's lower percentage of participation, according to Eugene Garcia, is that Hispanics are less likely than their African American or white peers to participate in a pre-kindergarten program.

"For the Hispanic community, financial, linguistic and educational barriers account for large proportions of pre-kindergarten enrollment gaps. However, the geographical availability of preschool programs and availability via public school systems are variables associated with higher rates of Hispanic families sending their children to preschool at an earlier age," Garcia said.

Garcia, who reported on the findings of the National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics, said, "One out of five children under the age of 8 in the United States is Hispanic. Nationally, 46 percent of the Hispanic babies are born to single mothers and 47 percent are born to mothers with less than a high school education."

New Mexico is among the eight states where 75 percent of the nation's Hispanic babies are born. In New Mexico 54.6 percent of the newborn babies are Hispanic compared to 24 percent nationally.

With the home language of Hispanic children at age 9 months being 75 percent influenced by Spanish either as Spanish only, primarily Spanish with English or primarily English with Spanish, Garcia said it is crucial that the teacher workforce be competent in Spanish and he advises that the home's primary language be utilized to communicate with the families and to introduce conceptual learning to the child while they are transitioning to English.

"Schools need language development specialists that focus on the complexity of transitioning the children into bilingual communication," he said.

In summary of his presentation, Riley said, "If delivered with care, these programs really work. Good early environments create better physical brain architecture. Better brain architecture creates better lives: competent and caring citizens. These competent and caring citizens create better families, communities and America."