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Does Pre-Kindergarten Education Work – or Not?

April 19, 2016
AssessmentOutcomesQuality and Curriculum
Isabel Sawhill
Real Clear Markets
In this tumultuous election year one wonders whether reasoned debate about education or other policies is still possible. That said, research has a role to play in helping policymakers make good decisions – if not before than after they are in office. So what do we know about the ability of early education to change children’s lives? At the moment, scholars are divided. One camp argues that pre-k doesn’t work, suggesting that it would be a mistake to expand it. Another camp believes that it is one of the most cost-effective things we could do to improve children’s lifetime prospects, especially if they come from disadvantaged homes.
The pre-k advocates cite several earlier demonstrations, such as the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs. These have been rigorously evaluated and found to improve children’s long-term success, including less use of special education, increases in high school graduation, reduced crime, and higher earnings. Participants in the Abecedarian program, for example, earned 60 percent more than controls by age 30. Mothers benefit as well since more of them are able to work. The Abecedarian project increased maternal earnings by $90,000 over the course of the mother’s career. Finally, by reducing crime, improving health, and decreasing the need for government assistance, these programs also reduce the burden on taxpayers. According to one estimate, the programs even increase GDP to the tune of $30 to $80 billion (in 2015 dollars) once the children have moved into and through their working lives. A careful summary of all this research can be found in this year’s Economic Report of the President. The Report notes, and I would emphasize, that no one study can do justice to this issue, and not every program has been successful, but the weight of the evidence points strongly to the overall success of high-quality programs. This includes not just the small, very intensive model programs, but importantly the large, publically-funded pre-school programs such as those in Boston, Tulsa, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. Some estimates put the ratio of benefits to costs at $7 to $1. Very few investments promise such a large return. Pre-k advocates admit that any gains in IQ may fade but that boosts to nonacademic skills such as self-control, motivation, and planning have long-term effects that have been documented in studies of siblings exposed to differing amounts of early education.