Issues in public education are constantly changing, but anyone involved with educating children can agree on one thing: Student achievement is the goal. To see a child bring home a report card full of As, or watch a youngster cross the stage at graduation and grasp a high school diploma, is to witness the result of commitment to that goal.

The question is, how can schools best ensure that all students get there?

Many educators and policy-makers agree one of the best ways is to start early, laying the foundation for student achievement in early childhood education, or preschool. Research shows that participating in a high-quality, early childhood program can improve children’s chances of success both at the moment they enter a kindergarten classroom, and into future years of their academic careers.

For minority and low-income children, preschool is even more important, according to “How Much Can High-Quality Universal Pre-K Reduce Achievement Gaps?” a recent report written by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), based at Rutgers University. Compared to their white peers, according to the report, African-American and Hispanic children entering kindergarten are anywhere from 9 to 10 months behind in math, and 7 to 12 months behind in reading. But evidence shows a high-quality preschool program could reduce those achievement gaps.

Head Start, the federally-funded preschool program; and New Jersey’s state-funded universal preschool, begun in the former Abbott districts, both provide early childhood education opportunities. But not enough. In the following interview, Dr. W. Steven Barnett, director of NIEER and co-author of the achievement gap report, talks about the importance of early childhood education; what school boards can do to help; and more.

Q: We hear that quality early childhood education is one of the best ways to help increase student achievement. In brief, can you quantify the benefit of preschool?

About half of the achievement gap we worry about at the end of high school is there before children walk through the kindergarten door. We can close almost all of that gap between minority students and white non-Hispanic students with quality preschool. We can close much of the gap between high-income and low-income students.

Q. In a nutshell, why is it so helpful? What do children gain from attending preschool?

What children gain from a high-quality program is, first, a big boost to their language development. That’s not just about vocabulary. Vocabulary is your toolbox for understanding the world, but it’s not just memorizing words, it’s understanding the concept that goes with them, and the relationships among them. It’s about literacy skills, and it’s also about expanding and developing their knowledge of mathematics at a level that is far beyond what people typically think young children are capable of. It’s also developing their executive function, or self-regulation – that includes the ability to think before you act, and that’s important. So that when another kid bumps you, you don’t just turn around and hit them.

It’s also about problem-solving. Two children want to use the same thing, or play with the same thing on the playground; how do they solve that, rather than the bigger one simply taking it from the smaller one? It’s thinking ahead and planning; you can see those skills are important for managing their own behavior in the classroom, rather than having the teacher manage it. It’s also important for paying attention to what the teacher wants you to do, such as learning to read. We all know that young children can focus intensely on things that they’re immediately interested in, the tough task is to focus that on something the teacher wants them to focus on. I think any educator would understand why that’s important. Finally, it also is important for setting the basis for scientific inquiry.

Q. Is there a long-term quantifiable benefit, such as higher college attendance, job attainment, etcetera?

Every year of a child’s life matters, so preschool isn’t a permanent fix. How much kids gain from preschool really depends on how much we take advantage of that in the years after preschool. For example, if children learn a lot of math in preschool and they get to kindergarten, and the kindergarten teacher is drilling them on counting from one to five, they’re not going to build on the gains from preschool, and kids that didn’t go to preschool will catch up. It really is important that this be integrated into the education system. The districts that have made the biggest gains with preschool in New Jersey are the ones that started in kindergarten revising what they did, and pushed it all the way on up.

There’s research that shows that from very high-quality programs, kids are more successful in school and more successful at getting jobs and staying out of trouble with the law. They have better health as adults. They’re very broad outcomes. And, here in New Jersey, we have evidence that from the Abbott preschool programs, or the “former Abbotts,” which offer two years of high-quality preschool starting at age 3, there are strong gains through at least fifth grade – with higher achievement test scores, less special education, less grade repetition. It’s pretty clear that if you can keep kids out of special education and keep them from repeating grades, they’re more likely to graduate. And if they’re more likely to graduate, they’re more likely to get a job, stay out of jail, go on to higher education.

Q. How many children are attending quality preschool in New Jersey? How many are in state-funded preschool, how many in Head Start, and how many in private preschool?

Of the roughly 225,000 3- and 4-year-olds in New Jersey, 144,000, or 64 percent, attend some kind of preschool or child care center. The rest are at home or in someone else’s home (for example, a grandparent or a family home day care provider.) About 90,000 of those children in centers, or 40 percent of the total (more than 60 percent of the 144,000 in centers) attend a public program – state-funded preschool; preschool provided by the local public schools without state support; Head Start; or preschool special education. This number is hard to estimate because overlap between programs makes it difficult for us to come up with an unduplicated count, so the number in public programs could be lower.

We don’t know about the quality of all of these programs. The quality of most of the state-funded pre-K programs is good. In 2014-2015, the average state-funded classroom scored substantially better than good in quality observations conducted for the state, and no classroom scored in the poor quality range.

Q. Is there a benefit for more affluent students to attending preschool?

There are benefits; the benefits are smaller because they would do much better even without preschool, and if you don’t have a problem you can’t fix it. But one in 10 middle income kids will have to repeat a grade, and if you told me that my kid’s chances of repeating a grade were one in 10, and I could cut that in half, I’d be pretty interested. Even kids from high-income families have learning problems, social-emotional problems we can prevent and remediate if we can get them before they start kindergarten. Early identification and treatment of those problems is just as important for a kid from a high-income family as from a low-income family.

Q. Do we need more preschool in New Jersey? Can you quantify the need?

We do need more preschool in New Jersey, and in particular, we need more good preschool in New Jersey. It’s not just that it’s not publicly available, it’s that you can’t find it at all. That begins with infant and toddler programs, not just with preschool. In New Jersey, we’ve really only addressed the needs of children and families for preschool education in the Abbott districts, and the small number of expansion districts; the Legislature actually passed a bill expanding it to many more districts but never funded it. That probably is the next job that really ought to be done. We have a bill that was passed, it designated the districts with the next-greatest needs, and when the recession came there was no money to fund it. But we’ve come out of the recession and it is time.

Q. What can local districts do to help further preschool? Specifically, what can local school board members do to help?

Local schools are free to make their own decisions about how they allocate their resources. Local schools that have access to Title I funds are encouraged to use their Title I funding for preschool programs. Districts can also start up programs that are funded by a combination of their resources and parent fees; it doesn’t all have to be 100 percent paid for by the public, it can be financed with a sliding-fee scale. There are districts that do that, they have a combination of the lowest-income families paid for through Title I or another revenue source, other families are partially subsidized, so there are many paths to get there. The important thing for any school board to keep in mind is to make sure they have high expectations of standards for the program. If it’s not really high quality, or if they don’t set high goals for what children should achieve and teachers should do, it’s not going to be worth it. The kind of payoffs I talked about are only achieved if it’s a good program.

Dr. W. Steven Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. His research includes studies of the economics of early care and education including costs and benefits, the long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s learning and development, and the distribution of educational opportunities.

Jeanette Rundquist is NJSBA communication officer and the special section editor of School Leader.