Pre-K 4 SA students line up outside of their bus at the San Antonio Food Bank. Photo by Scott Ball.
Pre-K 4 SA students line up outside of their bus. San Antonio voters will get to decide in May whether Pre-K 4 SA deserves to maintain its eighth-of-a-cent sales tax funding for eight more years. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

No other area of education has been scrutinized as much as early childhood education. Despite five decades of academic research, some continue to dispute the benefits of early learning to overall student success. In this article, we address four of the most persistent myths about early childhood education.

Myth 1: Preschool is just babysitting

High-quality early learning classrooms are joyful places where children actively move about, explore materials, interact with others, laugh, sing, and dance. Because a preschool classroom is structured differently from a classroom for older children, some mistakenly assume that preschool children are not learning anything important. Nothing could be further from the truth. Young children learn through play, and for that reason, quality early learning classrooms are strategically designed to engage children in purposeful play, encouraging them to be active participants in their own learning. So while the children think they are just having fun, they are actually developing language skills, mathematical thinking, scientific concepts, and literacy. They are also developing strong social-emotional skills, which are critical not just to school success, but also to life success. Early learning teachers have deep knowledge of how children develop physically, emotionally, socially, and academically. And they use this knowledge not only to create an engaging classroom environment, but also to continuously individualize instruction for each child. Highly individualized instruction is key to ensuring every child is supported at each stage in their development. No other level of teaching requires as much knowledge of human development or as much individualization of instruction as early childhood education. Effective early learning teachers are far from babysitters. They are among the most highly skilled educators in the teacher workforce.

Myth 2: Young children are not ready for school

No one is more ready for learning than young children. While the brain continues to grow throughout the human lifespan, the most rapid brain development occurs in the first few years of life. In fact, young children grow over a million neural connections every second, faster than at any other time in their lives. After age five, brain growth slows and existing neural connections become hardwired into the brain, serving as the foundational mortar upon which all other learning will be built. The brain is a highly integrated and complex organ, and the strength of the brain’s foundation affects learning, behavior, and health throughout life. One way to help ensure young children develop strong brain architecture is through high-quality early learning before the age of five. Quality early learning programs provide children with supportive adult-child relationships, which have been identified as key to healthy brain development. Additionally, quality early learning programs utilize a holistic approach to address the cognitive, language, physical, social, and emotional domains of development. By doing so, early learning programs build strong brains, strong bodies, and strong spirits within young children.

Pre-K 4 SA students play and learn at one of the program's four centers. Photo courtesy of Pre-K 4 SA
Pre-K 4 SA students play and learn at one of the program’s centers. Credit: Courtesy / Pre-K 4 SA
Myth 3: Early learning is a waste of taxpayer dollars because any positive effects fade out by third grade

The myth of the fade out effect emerged after a study of Head Start programs found that while children who attended Head Start had positive academic and social gains during the years they were enrolled in the program, they had similar academic outcomes as their peers by the end of third grade. This study led many to wrongly conclude that early learning does not work. While the Head Start study did not find sustained benefits for the entire sample of children, the study did identify sustained benefits for certain groups of children, particularly children living in households categorized as being at high-risk for traumatic stress. Children in high-risk households who attended Head Start as three-year-olds had better third grade reading scores than their peers. In other words, the most vulnerable children in the study outperformed their peers on third grade reading when they attended Head Start as three-year-olds. Additionally, other studies have shown that children who attend quality early learning programs retain academic and social advantages well past third grade. More importantly, academic skills in third grade are not even the most important benefit of early learning. Over four decades of research indicates the strongest effects of high-quality early learning are seen in the later school years and throughout adulthood.

Myth 4: Early childhood education is too expensive

Even supporters of early learning often concede that it can be quite expensive. But, is it really? When one considers that high-quality early learning leads to reduced costs at other points in the education pipeline, the costs begin to look rather reasonable. Dr. James Heckman, Nobel laureate and professor of economics at the University of Chicago, has conducted multiple studies analyzing the costs and benefits associated with early learning programs. Professor Heckman concludes that high-quality early learning programs yield an annual return on investment of 7% to 13% through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime. And that is only the monetary benefit. There are other indirect benefits to children, families, and communities. For example, how does one calculate the value of a child avoiding failure because he received a strong start in school? Or the value of a parent watching her child become the first in the family to earn a college degree? Or of a community changing its educational trajectory in one generation? These are the real, but intangible effects of children having access to high-quality early learning.

Dr. Sarah Baray is the CEO of Pre K 4 SA, the city-funded Prekindergarten program.