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The early childhood lobby wants you to believe that getting children in school a year earlier is going to lead to big educational gains for our schoolchildren — especially our economically disadvantaged schoolchildren — but the research does not support that claim.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike have embraced this idea, and not just in Connecticut. There is a nationwide movement toward lowering the age kids start school to four years old.

The problem is that there is no proof that starting children a year earlier will be a true benefit, and before we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on this expansion we should make sure it is the right fix for our schools and especially for our children.

The most comprehensive study of early childhood education, a decade-long study of the Head Start program conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that children who attended Head Start made some early academic gains, but that those advantages disappeared by third grade.

Disappointed by the findings, this study was released by the federal government in 2012 just four days before Christmas in 2012, and it was not broadly publicized.

By that age, the children who attended Head Start were deemed no more capable than other economically disadvantaged students.

Those who dispute the findings of this study point to other, less rigorous studies, or to studies of programs that they say are of a “higher quality.”

This “higher quality” argument is probably why the state is requiring half of all state-subsidized programs to have teachers with bachelor’s degrees by 2015. The idea being that by putting college-educated teachers in preschools, they will necessarily become high-quality programs.

But really, what do children need to learn by the age of five, and who — besides parents — is best qualified to teach these things?

When I looked for caregivers and preschool programs for my own children, I didn’t ask to see college credentials. I looked for caregivers who were patient and kind. Caregivers who understood how to work with a child who is frustrated, or could teach them to share a toy with a friend, or to button up a coat.

These attributes do not require a degree, but I do think they teach a young child more about how to prepare to live in the world than the skills a person learns in a four-year degree program.

What we should take away from the Head Start study is that what a child needs to learn in his or her early years is how to learn. And that takes learning how to be resilient and to stick with something even when it is difficult, to put off what you want now for a reward that will come sometime in the future. These skills are foundational to a child’s future success.

Research shows that the children who struggle to succeed in school are capable intellectually of keeping up, but lack these life skills. Amanda Lee Duckworth, who runs a research center at Penn State and is a former management consultant-turned-teacher, calls this collection of abilities “grit.”

So what can society do for a child who comes to school without grit? Can he or she acquire it in the classroom? Is there some other way we can instill this value?

Duckworth is now trying to find the answers to those questions, but they are not all there yet. But shouldn’t we at least be trying?

If we really want to give children a chance to succeed, we’ll pull back from this plan to provide universal pre-k and instead look for ways to equip the children already in our public schools with these important life skills.

If we’re going to spend our taxpayer dollars to try to close the achievement gap, we should spend that money wisely and carefully.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promised in his election campaign that he would bring universal pre-k to the state. Educating a child for a year in Connecticut costs the state about $17,500, so if we add 40,000 four-year-olds to the state’s schools, that’s about $700 million. Just in case you’re wondering, I’m using 40,000 because we have roughly 500,000 school-aged children now, or about 40,000 per grade. 

After this week of terrible financial news for the state — and a budget director who says we’re in a state of “permanent” financial crisis — can we all just please ask our lawmakers to stop making new plans to spend more money until they figure out how to pay for the things they’ve already promised? And ask them that when they do spend money, to spend it on things that work.

We already spend more per child for education than almost every other state, so instead of trying to find ways to spend even more, let’s look at how we can reallocate our resources to programs that will work to give children a better chance at success.

Suzanne Bates is the policy director for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. She lives in South Windsor with her family. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.

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