early education

One of the most controversial questions in education has been whether preschool — and specifically Head Start — helps kids succeed as they move through elementary school.

For more than 50 years, Head Start has provided free early childhood education and other services to low-income families. But new national research, out Wednesday, shows great variation from state to state in how well the program works.

The study comes from the National Institute for Early Education Research, and it examined Head Start programs in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this week pushed ahead with plans to make New York City one of nation's few big cities to offer free, full-day Preschool for all 3-year-olds­­.

The plan, which would eventually serve more than 60 thousand children a year, builds on one of Mayor de Blasio's signature accomplishments of his first term: universal pre-K for 4-year-olds.

Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma already offer this. New York City's would be the largest.

Is preschool worth it? Policymakers, parents, researchers and us, at NPR Ed, have spent a lot of time thinking about this question.

First, a story:

Late one night, a man searches for something in a parking lot. On his hands and knees, he crawls around a bright circle of light created by a streetlamp overhead.

A woman passes, stops, takes in the scene.

"What are you looking for? Can I help?"

"My car keys. Any chance you've seen them?"

"You dropped them right around here?"

"Oh, no. I dropped them way over there," he says, gesturing vaguely to some faraway spot on the other side of the lot.

"Then why are you looking here?"

The man pauses to consider the question.

This story is part of our NPR Ed series on mental health and schools.

When it comes to children's brains, Rahil Briggs describes them as ... sticky.

"Whatever we throw, [it] sticks. That's why they can learn Spanish in six months when it takes us six years," says the New York City based child psychologist, "but also why if they're exposed to community violence, or domestic violence, it really sticks."

In 1998 Oklahoma became one of only two states to offer universal preschool, and it's been one of the most closely watched experiments in the country.

Today, the vast majority of these programs are in public schools. The rest are run by child-care centers or Head Start, the federally funded early-childhood education program.

Both our current president and the presumptive Democratic nominee have talked a lot about expanding early childhood education. President Obama has backed up his rhetoric by creating Preschool Development Grants.

A new report, out today, provides 186 pages of answers to one of the toughest questions in education:

What does it take to get preschool right?

Parents and politicians alike want to know. States are spending roughly $7 billion this year on early childhood education, despite the fact that there are more cautionary tales — like this one from Tennessee — than success stories.

The U.S. spends a lot of money on preschool — billions of dollars each year. When invested wisely, research suggests the costs are justified by significant returns to society, including savings from crimes not committed, welfare dollars not distributed, and taxes on higher earnings.

But a new report suggests many preschool programs aren't as good as they could (or should) be — because their teachers arrived on the job poorly trained.

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