Alabama state senator Trip Pittman had always sort of questioned whether nursery schools were worth the investment. Pittman, a conservative Republican, figured the kinds of things you’re supposed to learn before kindergarten—washing your hands, tying your shoes, minding your manners—might best be taught by parents and grandparents at home. Conservatives often argue that kids who attend preschool fare no better than those who don’t. So in 2013, when a proposal came before the Legislature to expand a state preschool program for four-year-olds, Pittman was on the fence.
The folks from the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, a group backing the proposal, were persistent, though. They were sure they could win the senator over if only he would come see the program in action, and so one day he did. Pittman visited a preschool in Prichard, a small, long-struggling city near Mobile, and came away captivated. “I watched the interaction between the teachers and the students,” he recalls. “It seemed remarkable, the fact that you could assimilate children into a classroom environment—raising their hands, going down the hall, being inquisitive. It was really impressive the way the teachers interacted with kids.” The team also showed him data on outcomes for children living in poverty: Sixth-grade preschool alums scored about 9 percent higher on state tests than those who hadn’t attended, and third-grade alums scored 13 percent higher than their peers. “The results I saw,” Pittman says, “were dramatic.”
By many measures, the people of Alabama aren’t doing well. It’s one of the poorest and sickest states in the nation, with high rates of hunger, obesity, heart disease, and deaths from cancer. Test scores are much lower than the national average. In 2017, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child advocacy group, ranked the state’s educational system 42nd in the nation. But its preschools have been an oasis on that dismal landscape. In 2013, just 7 percent of Alabama four-year-olds participated in the program, which is open to all. By 2017, almost one-quarter did, and Alabama was one of only three states to meet all 10 of the nationally recognized benchmarks for preschool quality, outperforming even states like Massachusetts that are known for great public education.
In the six years that Alabama has collected data on the program, its graduates have consistently outperformed their fellow students. “People look at Alabama and they don’t think of it as No. 1 in anything,” says Allison Muhlendorf, who heads the School Readiness Alliance. “But we’re very proud to be No. 1 in pre-K quality.”
This success has implications well beyond Alabama’s borders. It is the first real test, in the reddest of red states, of the notion that investing in early education can improve not only children’s outcomes, but entire economies. For years, many Republicans have argued that any preschool gains fade by the third grade—and they have used this claim to try to dismantle public preschool programs. In 2014, Rep. Paul Ryan famously charged that Head Start, the federal program that provides free preschool to poor families, was “failing to prepare children for school.” Alabama’s results fly in the face of such arguments. And its program never would have been possible without the support of a committed group of businesspeople and lawmakers—many of them as conservative as they come.
During the first few years of life, the human brain grows with incredible speed, from about a quarter of the size of an adult’s at birth to 90 percent by age six. Some regions undergo particularly dramatic changes—namely the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex reasoning, decision making, and navigation of social relationships, says Laurel Gabard-Durnam, a postdoctoral fellow who studies brain development at Boston Children’s Hospital. “What looks like casual play is actually this incredibly complicated set of cognitive processes that all work together to improve the way that you think and regulate yourself.” . . .