The evidence supporting formal pre-elementary education is substantial and quite clear: quality pre-school and kindergarten programs that are center-based (as opposed to home-based) have a positive impact on children across a wide range of factors over time.
In the short-term, early education provides children with basic knowledge such as language and writing skills, and color and shape recognition — skills that are later used to gauge “school readiness” in kindergarten or first grade. Long term, pre-elementary education supports both cognitive (reading) and non-cognitive outcomes, such as a child’s social-emotional development.
These benefits are particularly critical for children whose families have low household incomes or who may not speak English at home. And yet, Latinx children are among the least likely to attend center-based early education programs — instead often attending half-day programs or staying at home with a parent, relative, or friend. Sadly, the lack of early education experiences may contribute to the lower educational outcomes often reported for Latinx students.
There are several reasons for the lower enrollment. Many Latinx parents are not able to afford private programs and may not know about publicly-funded ones. More commonly, space in public programs is limited, leaving many working-class families without high quality, center-based options. Furthermore, the idea that Latinx parents don’t enroll their kids in early education centers for cultural reasons has not been substantiated. On the contrary, it is likely that if more high-quality centers were opened, more families would participate.
It is important to emphasize that the benefits of early education have been shown to apply only to children who attend quality, center-based programs; and unfortunately, not all centers have high quality programs. Compounding the issue, there is no standardized system to evaluate early education, outside of certain federal programs. As a result, many parents struggle to make informed decisions about programs, especially if they are unfamiliar with what to look for: Quality early education programs tend to have lower student-teacher ratios and more experienced teachers and staff. More importantly, higher quality programs promote healthy child-teacher interactions and have staff that can adeptly lead developmentally appropriate instructional activities. Indeed, well prepared and trained teachers are key ingredients in any high-quality pre-school or kindergarten.
While the greatest need is to increase the number of students enrolled in pre-kindergarten (typically for children who are between 4 ½ and 5 years old) and kindergarten (typically 5 and 6-year-olds), it is important to remember that formal education has similarly impressive benefits for children who start school as early as age 3. We also should not overlook the importance of a well-prepared teaching force, a key factor in determining the quality of early education programs. The evidence is in. All children, including Latinx children, should be given every opportunity to thrive in school; and that begins with a quality, center-based early education experience.
Maria Estela Zarate is Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at California State University, Fullerton where she teaches future education leaders. Her research publications address the trajectory of immigrant students in U.S. schools, including the connections between schools and families.