Q&A with Dr. Steven Barnett, One of the 50 Most Cited Rutgers University Professors of 2018

GSE Board of Governors Professor and National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) Director Dr. Steven Barnett was named among the top 100 most influential education scholars in the nation by Education Week and was recognized in a Rutgers Today article as one of the top 50 most cited Rutgers University professors. Dr. Barnett has dedicated much of his time toward researching the economics of human development and finding effective public investments to benefit children in the public-school system. This Q&A highlights Dr. Barnett’s expertise in the area of early childhood education and accessibility and provides insight into the challenges surrounding providing early childhood education.

1. On a daily basis, how do you think a lack of access to quality pre-K programs affect children’s ability to effectively learn in the classroom once they move on to higher grade levels?

Two consequences stand out for me. First, many children from disadvantaged backgrounds start kindergarten far behind their peers in language, literacy, math, and executive functions because they have not had sufficient opportunities to learn. They can make tremendous progress in learning yet still be so far behind that they will be judged to be failing in reading or math. Second, children from middle income families may have a range of problems that limit their learning in the early years, and if these are not addressed early on, they too can fall far behind their potential, and have difficulty in accessing the opportunities provided beginning in kindergarten.

2. What is your ideal vision for combating a lack of quality pre-k programs in the next 5 years?

State and local governments need to recognize that achievement gaps reflect opportunity gaps that they can and should fill.  This will require investments in programs and the infrastructure to support them and includes transforming the early childhood programs we have now primarily by supporting teachers-giving them access to higher education, coaching and other supports for improving their practice, and adequate compensation.

3. School funding is already a serious issue across the nation and was even a hot topic during our midterm elections. With there already being a struggle for funding for schools, how do you propose providing quality pre-k programs will be funded in the future?

Pre-k needs to be part of the public education funding system at the same time that these systems are reformed for equity and efficiency.  Pre-K is dramatically under-funded. Some K-12 systems and schools within other systems also are underfunded. Yet, is also possible for public education to produce much better results with the funds they have already.  

4. What is the return on investment for providing high-quality pre-k programs? What are the three biggest benefits of providing these programs?

The return on investment depends on delivering truly high quality and building on that in k-12.  Done right the return can be as much as 10 times the cost. The biggest benefits are: improvements in the development and well-being of young children, increased achievement and educational attainment, and healthier, more productive lives.

5. What ways can policy-makers and education professionals help create high-quality pre-k programs in urban areas? Should there be a different approach to installing pre-k programs in urban areas than in more affluent areas?

We need to ensure that every child in communities with high concentrations of poverty attends high-quality pre-K beginning at age 3 as part of public education. New Jersey has a successful model to do this that can be followed by others, and it is now being expanded to more communities. Eventually, every child should have access. How different the programs and infrastructure look from place to place will have to be learned locally using local data to continuously improve program design and implementation.

6. What do you think the biggest challenge is to create high-quality pre-k programs besides funding?

Lack of political will which I attribute to failure to appreciate three things: how much learning and development occurs during the early years, how difficult it is to alter early trajectories once we decide to do it, and how successful we have been at scale, when committed to meeting children’s needs.