Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FALL 2015

Diane Schanzenbach

“There’s more and more evidence that getting kids off on the right foot has great impact later in life.”

Terri Sabol

“Thinking about preschools from multiple levels, including individual children’s experiences, the quality of teacher-child interactions, and family and community contexts, means we’re getting closer to focusing on what’s important.”

Early Learning, Lifelong Success

By Marilyn Sherman
Early Learning, Lifelong Success

Anyone who has ever seen a preschooler name dinosaurs, add numbers or identify insects knows that young kids are little sponges—ready to soar with learning that can last a lifetime. As the importance of early education becomes more and more accepted, consensus is building among experts and policy makers to expand access to preschool and improve quality. But how?

SESP faculty members are at the forefront of defining policy to help young children take off on a path toward continued success. Research by associate professor Diane Schanzenbach shows the effects of early education later in life, as well as the impact of different types of programs. Research by assistant professor Terri Sabol defines what quality preschool looks like and how to improve early education.

Both Schanzenbach and Sabol want to ensure that all children are ready for school when they start kindergarten. Interestingly, they are tackling this critical issue from different angles. As an economist, Schanzenbach analyzes vast data to determine the most effective preschool policies. As a developmental psychologist, Sabol applies developmental theory to inform policy.


“There’s more and more evidence that getting kids off on the right foot has great impact later in life,” says Schanzenbach, who herself has contributed some of the most convincing evidence and is now helping to shape states’ policies. “More and more research is coming to establish that early life learning environments set kids up for a lifetime of success.”

Schanzenbach’s landmark 2010 study found that a good kindergarten experience was still raising education and income levels when those kindergartners were in their 30s. Achievement, jobs, savings, even marriage—all were improved by quality kindergarten. In addition, a new study by Sabol links preschool participation to better health in adolescence.

Recently, like a detective tracking down evidence, Schanzenbach investigated the effect over two decades of model public preschool programs in two states, Georgia and Oklahoma. Sure enough, she found that preschool has impacts on later school achievement— impacts that can be measured even in eighth grade. Knowing that “early life environments matter,” Schanzenbach is now studying the best way to shape policy on preK education to make the most impact for the fewest dollars. As an economist, she keeps her eye on cost-effectiveness and return on investment as she tackles policy change.


As Schanzenbach weighs various policies, such as universal preschool, she stresses the need to look at the context of what a child would be doing without that policy. “Early life education influences later learning at all socioeconomic levels,” she says. “However, at higher income levels the impacts aren’t as great, because with more access to free preschool higher-income families tend to substitute one high-quality environ- ment for another.”

“The bulk of the impact comes from getting the poorest kids into preschool,” she maintains. For that reason, in the policy arena she is most concerned about improving the school readiness of low-income children, where shortfalls are most troubling and programs have most impact.

Through the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, Schanzenbach recently issued policy recommendations called “Expanding Preschool Access for Disadvantaged Children.” She is also working with U.S. states on improving their early childhood policies and has even advised the government of Japan on the issue.

Schanzenbach concludes that the best policy approach is a targeted one. Universal preschool would have no more benefit academically, and it would cost much more. She recommends that each state “take the next step” toward improved programs. States lacking public preschool would start high-quality, targeted programs; states with lower-quality programs would improve quality; and states with higher-quality pro- grams would expand access. She views this process as “preserving investments and expanding.”


For states to build higher-quality programs, a key question is “What does high-quality preschool look like?” Terri Sabol is helping to offer a solidly researched answer—a much-needed answer since most U.S. children, especially those from low-income homes, attend programs that aren’t improving their school readiness.

“Evidence shows that participation in good, high-quality early education programs leads to lasting outcomes,” says Sabol. “However, it’s not easy to identify what is the ‘secret sauce’ of high-quality early childhood education that promotes readiness for school and beyond.”

“Yes, preschool is ‘hot,’ but let’s figure out what is a good preschool. Thinking about preschools from multiple levels, including individual children’s experiences, the quality of teacher-child interactions, and family and community contexts, means we’re getting closer to focusing on what’s important,” she notes.

While typically early childhood policies have aimed at regulating structural elements like class size and teachers’ schooling, Sabol has opened up a new way of viewing preschool quality in a more meaningful way. “What’s going on between teachers and children that’s fostering development?” she asks. She also studies families and broader contexts that affect the preschool experience for children.


Parents often use state-supported preschool rating systems to search for preschool programs with “high-star” ratings. However, current ratings systems don’t relate well to what children are learning, according to Sabol, who sees an urgent need to rethink state ratings as a way to improve the aspects of education that matter most. “Measures that get at the quality of teacher-child interactions do a good job of predicting how much a child will learn over the school year,” she says.

In current studies, Sabol is zeroing in on three essential ingredients in the “secret sauce” of preschool quality—teachers, family and community. “One of the key ways that teachers improve learning is through interactions with children, but professional development programs often do not target these skills,” she says. Her recent study discovered that effective teachers recognize high-quality interactions in videos, and that this skill explains some of children’s learning gains in preschool.

Sabol is also finding ways to strengthen the measurement of family engagement in ratings systems. “We need an updated model for the 21st century because current measures don’t reflect family involvement today,” she says. This family research flows from her research on two-generation education programs that finds improved parent education is related to child outcomes. “Our research suggests that early childhood education can support parents’ own educational outcomes, as well as children’s outcomes,” she notes.

The community is another consideration in Sabol’s research. A current project is investigating the neighborhood impact on preschools, using Google Earth coding to see the effect of interventions. Her multi- faceted approach will lead to better understanding of how to improve preschool education.


Sabol herself is a former first-grade teacher, who taught through Teach for America on the South Side of Chicago. That teaching experience sparked her to find an avenue for improving all children’s early education experiences. “I’ve been motivated by the fact that a lot of my children were not ready for school. That has driven my work on how we make sure all kids have an equal start,” she says.

Now she serves on committees to advise states on assessing and improving preschool programs, and is seeing her research influence policy. “I’m excited about partnering with Illinois—to make sure research makes a difference,” she says. “I’m glad that my work will be potentially useful to the state.”

Sabol and Schanzenbach both work toward seeing the day when all children are ready to start kindergarten on solid footing. With their contributions to improved policies and greater understanding of quality, preschool will be on a better path toward realizing lifelong success for all children.