5 Reasons Why the Importance of ECE Is Impossible to Ignore

male teacher working with young girl 

Conversations about the importance of early childhood education (ECE) have been circulating for quite some time. But more and more studies are coming to light that reveal potential learning disparities between students who reaped the benefits of early childhood education and those who didn’t. Needless to say, the topic has become more prevalent than ever.

Educators, politicians and parents have become active participants in these discussions as our nation is in search of the best educational opportunities for our smallest citizens. Contemporary research has shown that the investment in early education—particularly among disadvantaged children—improves not only cognitive abilities, but also critical behavioral traits like sociability, motivation and self-esteem.1

But while advocates have long promoted the importance of ECE, that doesn’t mean there are no longer skeptics who doubt its true impact. As with any complex subject, definitive answers are hard to find and there’s plenty of opportunity for confusion with seemingly conflicting research results. But as someone who cares strongly about educating young children, you’re here to advocate—and we’re here to help you make that case. We’ve done this by compiling information from several studies and reputable resources about the profound impact of ECE on young learners.

5 Compelling reasons to pay attention to the benefits of early childhood education

Why is early childhood education so important? Take a look at what we found in support of a thriving future for our country’s young minds!

1. Thinning the “school-to-prison pipeline”

We often hear about the school-to-prison pipeline as it relates to high school dropout rates. For example, a 2003 Bureau of Justice Studies report found that 41 percent of incarcerated people only have some high school education or less—and there’s a clear correlation between educational attainment and staying out of prison.2  

Missed time from school can have an immediate effect on the student’s relationship with the law. A Texas study found that when a school suspended or expelled a student for a discretionary offense, that student was 2.85 times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system during the next academic year.3 This absence from school can also make them more likely to drop out, which puts them at a greater risk to be institutionalized in prisons and health care facilities—more than 45 percent compared to nearly 9 percent for the general student population.3

The economic implications of these statistics impact many more than just those who are imprisoned. On average, each individual federal prisoner incarcerated in 2017 cost taxpayers $34,704 per year—and with a large prison population, that total figure adds up quickly.4

So what does this have to do with ECE? Studies suggest that putting more children in pre-K now will result in fewer adults in prison later in life.5 The long-term impact that ECE can have on a child is astounding. The benefits of early childhood education can better entire communities, not only the child or their families.

2. Closing the word gap

Formally referred to as “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3,” this 1995 research study confirmed what many ECE advocates have been preaching for decades: Much of the most critical brain development in children takes place before they even reach kindergarten.6

The study itself revealed that children from the poorest families learned approximately 30 million fewer words than those from more affluent families by age three. These numbers are a reflection of how much the parents talked to their children, tying directly to IQs and academic performance later in life. That language deficit could then cascade on to the next generation, creating a negative loop.

Much of this cognitive development takes place before a child will enter kindergarten, and ECE advocates cite this study when highlighting the value of early interventions that directly address the developmental inequality in young minds. ECE professionals have the opportunity to build on what children already know, introducing and reinforcing new words in addition to already existing interests and capabilities, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

3. The U.S. trails other countries in ECE

Building upon the foundation that ECE and school readiness is a critical element in preparing our children to be successful in an increasingly competitive global economy, it is alarming to learn that the United States falls significantly behind other countries in enrollment, investment and quality of ECE resources.

As of 2016, only a portion of children under five were enrolled in a preprimary programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics:7

  • 42 percent of 3-year-olds
  • 66 percent of 4-year-olds
  • 86 percent of 5-year-olds

Unfortunately, these numbers have not changed much since 2000. Preliminary education is important as it directly relates to a child’s pre-literacy, prewriting and pre-math skills. It also affects school readiness and other skills that prove essential to educating a strong workforce that can contribute to a successful global economy.

Many of these disparities are due to a large preschool access gap, which is why some efforts are being made on a national scale to increase the U.S. investment in ECE.

4. Early education initiatives are in the political spotlight

Whether you care to follow the daily partisan back-and-forth between policymakers or not, it’s undeniable that early childhood education initiatives have become a focus area for many elected officials.

In fact, early childhood education policy is already being discussed in the 2020 presidential election. Some candidates argue for universal preschool, while others believe that parents should receive tax credits to help make childcare more affordable. For example, California Senator Kamala Harris supports The Child Care for Working Families Act, introduced in 2019, that builds on the existing Child Care and Development Block Grant Program.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan is similar and plans to focus on childcare cost, quality and worker pay. It’s predicted to boost the number of children in formal childcare from 6.8 million to 12 million, 60 percent of which will likely be under age five. Other candidates, like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, want to increase the number of tax credits families can earn based on their childcare expenses.

No matter your political leanings, it’s safe to say early childhood education policy will receive additional attention in the run-up to the national 2020 elections. 

5. Education benefits become economic benefits

We’ve seen how ECE can impact children in the long run, by helping them read earlier, stay in school and avoid from trouble with the law. And it’s easy to see how quality and accessible childcare makes it easier for parents with young children to return to work. Even if the parent already works, high-quality childcare helps parents improve their productivity at work by missing fewer work hours and opening up options for further education. Even the children in ECE benefit. As adults, they’re more likely to be educated, employed and trained in a specific occupation.

These individual factors can play a big role in your local economy—and by extension—the national economy. A 2018 study found that rising childcare costs resulted in a 13 percent decrease in employment of mothers of young children.8 For the parents that choose to stay at work, childcare problems often leave them scurrying to find other options or staying at home. One report shows that nationally the economic cost of lost earnings and productivity due to low-quality or nonexistent childcare totals $57 billion dollars each year.9

That’s a substantial economic drag that can be mitigated with expanded universal pre-K coverage. In 2009, Washington, D.C. enacted a universal preschool program policy, which offered free or subsidized preschool to four-year-olds and some three-year-olds. A study of this program shows a substantial economic payoff, with an astounding 10 percent increase in workforce participation among mothers of young children after the program began in 2009.10

More participation in the workplace means fewer dollars lost by American business and more diversity in the workplace, as woman are primarily affected by the childcare crisis. Not only is early childhood education important for families, it is key for our nation’s workplace and economic health.

Can you play a role in early childhood development?

From the findings of national studies to the sobering statistics about the school-to-prison pipeline, the invaluable role of ECE is hard to deny. Even the increased efforts being made at the highest levels of our nation’s federal policy demonstrate the importance of early childhood education.

Investing in the education of our children early on puts young minds on a promising path for lifelong learning and future success in the workplace and global economy at large.

While access to ECE is instrumental to childhood development, educators play just as crucial of a role in setting children up for a successful future. Can you envision yourself making a difference in molding young minds when it matters most? A degree in Early Childhood Education could position you to make that impact. Learn more about where this degree could take you with our article “What Can I Do with an Early Childhood Education Degree?

1National Bureau of Economic Research, Schools, Skills and Synapses [accessed June 2019] https://www.nber.org/papers/w14064
2U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Studies, Education and Correctional Populations [accessed June 2019] https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ecp.pdf
3Public Policy Research Institute, The Council of State Governments Justice Center, Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement [accessed June 2019] https://knowledgecenter.csg.org/kc/system/files/Breaking_School_Rules.pdf
4Federal Bureau of Prisons, Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration, [accessed June 2019] https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/04/30/2018-09062/annual-determination-of-average-cost-of-incarceration
5High Scope, The Perry Preschool Project, [accessed June 2019] https://highscope.org/perry-preschool-project/
6American Federation of Teachers, American Educator, The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3 [accessed June 2019] https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf 
7National Center for Education Statistics, Fast Facts: What percentage of children are enrolled in preprimary education? [Accessed June 2019] https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=516
8American Economic Association, American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings 2013, Female Labor Supply: Why Is the United States Falling Behind? [accessed June 2019] https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.103.3.251
9Ready Nation, Council For a Strong America, Want to Grow the Economy? Fix the Child Care Crisis [accessed June 2019] https://www.strongnation.org/articles/780-want-to-grow-the-economy-fix-the-child-care-crisis
10Center for American Progress, The Effects of Universal Preschool in Washington, D.C.: Children’s Learning and Mother’s Earnings, [accessed June 2019] https://cdn.americanprogress.org/content/uploads/2018/09/14125635/Children-Learning-Mothers-Earning-report.pdf

Rasmussen College's Early Childhood Education programs do not prepare students for licensed teaching positions in any public school setting, but students will have the opportunity to help shape the futures of young children from birth to age five in a non-public school setting or leadership role.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2016. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2019.

Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen College. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.

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