During the last ten years, New Jersey’s commitment to preschool (PK) has grown dramatically both in scope and quality. In the 2006-2007 school year in over 150 school districts, the NJ Department of Education (DOE) has projected that in the three state supported preschool programs, Abbott, Early Childhood Program Aid (ECPA) and Early Launch to Learning Initiative (ELLI), nearly 33,609 four year olds and 20,254 three year olds are being exposed to experiences that support child development and are being prepared for kindergarten and beyond.
Recent test scores are showing that the PK benefits are paying off. In 2005, 3rd grade scores in the state’s poorest or Abbott school districts increased in one year by 20.0% in math and nearly 11.1% in language arts. These third graders are the first group of children to have taken advantage of two years of Abbott preschool.
While New Jersey continues to be the vanguard for quality preschool, recent national studies have shown that investing solely in preschool is not enough. Although well designed early learning programs assist in improving children’s social and cognitive skills, the gains made in the early years often fade as children advance beyond kindergarten.
This problem stems from the frequent perception that early childhood should be viewed narrowly - as solely an initiative that prepares children for kindergarten. While this is an important outcome, quality preschool is only the first step to a child’s early learning experience. In order for the gains to be sustained, preschool must be followed by aligned and integrated experiences in kindergarten and through the third grade. By adopting a broader view of early learning that aligns quality preschool with the early elementary years, policy leaders will reap a better return on their preschool investment. More importantly, such alignment will have a long-lasting benefit for the children who participate.