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Preschool tied to higher math skills

Study boosts case for universal early education

By Nicole Ostrow
Bloomberg News / August 29, 2008
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NEW YORK - Children who went to preschool perform better in math at age 10 than classmates who didn't get the early education, according to a study in the United Kingdom.

An average child of that age who attended preschool scores 27 percent higher on a standard math test than a comparable pupil without the preparation, said researcher Edward Melhuish, a professor of human development at the University of London, in an e-mail on Tuesday.

The finding may buttress the case made by advocates of universal preschool education in the United States, where the federal government provides such programs only for children from low-income families. By contrast, the UK has paid for preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds since 2004, regardless of their parents' earnings.

"Universal preschool would mean higher test scores, less school failure, and probably also increased high school graduation and college attendance," W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, a program at Rutgers University, said in an e-mail.

Barnett wasn't involved in the research by Melhuish and others.

Melhuish was the lead author of a study, reported in yesterday's edition of Science, of preschool influences on math achievement. The article doesn't specify the gain for children from preschool, as Melhuish did in the e-mail.

The UK scientists said they analyzed data on more than 2,500 children. The subjects had attended preschool for 18 months on average, and also had five years of elementary education by age 10.

"Preschool boosts the child's cognitive language and social development," Melhuish said. "Therefore when the child starts school, the child benefits more from the school experience and many aspects of development are better, including math scores."

A study by Georgetown University released in June found that students who had completed Tulsa, Okla.'s state-funded preschool program exceeded peers who did not attend in reading, writing, and math skills. Oklahoma is one of only three states that fund public preschool education.

According to NIEER, US states have been increasing funding for preschool. In the 2006-2007 school year, 38 states spent $3.72 billion on preschool programs, an increase of 14 percent from the previous year.

What children learn at home is most important in determining how well they perform in school, the authors said. Another factor greater than preschool is the quality of the elementary school itself, they wrote.

"A child who has a good home learning environment, good preschool, and good primary school will do better than a child with only two," Melhuish said. "The difference between a child's development with all three compared to none is very great."

Preschool provides an educational foundation, said Anna Jane Hays, the author of "Ready, Set, Preschool!" .

"An experience . . . of going into a classroom with other children the same age is something that is really invaluable," she said.

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