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Small classes ensure that universal preschool gains are sustained

In a new Great Society, being bold is not enough. We also have to be right.

The multitrillion-dollar economic plans that President Joe Biden will be rolling out this spring promise major infrastructure investments, including universal preschool funding serving all 3- and 4-year-olds. The push for universal preschool has been building for many years. It started in 2013 when President Barack Obama announced his Preschool for All initiative in the State of the Union Address. The problem was that there was no strategic and financial plan to actually build and sustain such a system at federal or state levels. A further under-recognized issue was that the key elements required to help ensure that learning gains could be sustained were not clearly articulated.

Front and center: small class sizes

Addressing the key elements, which can be described as essential for program effectiveness [PDF], small class sizes are the most underrated of all. They deserve to be front and center in any expansion initiative. The reason is that every great program starts with a sound structure. That means leadership, organization, and of course teachers who are well-trained and compensated. Small classes, which I define as no more than 17 children in either part- or full-day formats, have a long history of success as an essential element. First, all the landmark early childhood programs demonstrating long-term gains into adulthood and high returns on investment had class sizes no higher than 17 or child/staff ratios of 17/2. This is described in the 2019 Cambridge University Press book “Sustaining Early Childhood Learning Gains: Program, School, and Family Influences” [PDF] (Arthur Reynolds and Judy Temple, editors).

Second, research syntheses over decades by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy shows that reducing class sizes is significantly associated with greater learning gains and that this advantage increases for the youngest students. The benefit corresponds to a 2- to 3-month gain for preschoolers in classes of 17 versus 20. Such a policy would more than pay for the cost of reducing class sizes by a ratio of 8 to 1. This does not include professional learning opportunities that would surely enhance instruction.

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The St. Paul experiment

A third source of evidence of the key importance of small classes is from a natural experiment in the St. Paul Public Schools from 2012-2014. In the first year of the scale-up of the Child-Parent Center program directed by HCRC, preschool classes in all participating schools were 17. Large gains in school readiness were found [PDF]. In the following year, the district increased class sizes back to the usual 20. Despite having the same teachers who had one more year of experience in a new program, learning gains dropped by 3 months compared to the first year. This take-away experiment shows the clear benefits of small classes in a contemporary, public school program. This advantage occurs regardless of family economic circumstances.

Arthur J. Reynolds
Arthur J. Reynolds
Near equal in importance, however, is that teachers prefer smaller classes and their satisfaction and enthusiasm for teaching is crucial for children’s success. Moreover, other essential elements such as child-centered, responsive instruction and learning time are more effective in the presence of small classes [PDF]. Although one could argue that a drop from the usual class size of 20 to 17 is not large, who would like to take a 15% cut in pay or reduction in resources? It matters!

As a nation, we are at a turning point with great opportunity, and social progress just as grand as the Great Society era of the 1960s is possible. In establishing and sustaining a voluntary universal preschool system in which over 90% of children can participate, a blended structure of federal-state-local funding and infrastructure supports is warranted. Programs must be unified and have common structures whereby schools and community centers partner, and families with more resources contribute on a sliding scale.

A hodgepodge of programs, services and funding

Most states have a hodgepodge of programs, services and funding that have no common structure of effectiveness, and do not recognize small classes as an essential element. Nor is universal access a priority. Even those with universal access or close to it do not implement small classes and many other key elements.

Now is the time to front-run the universal preschool movement by putting in the essential elements upfront before a system and approach is established that does not follow the evidence base accumulated over decades. In a new Great Society, being bold is not enough. We also have to be right.

Arthur J. Reynolds, Ph.D., is co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota. The center conducts research on cost-effective social programs spanning birth through high school.

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