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What Pre-K Means for Your Pre-Teenager

December 14, 2017
David L. Kirp
New York Times

Just how important is good preschool in the course of a child’s life?

Skeptical researchers have contended that it doesn’t really matter, that preschool provides only short-term educational assistance that fades out after a few years. But new findings from a continuing study of 4,000 children in Tulsa, Okla., should put that contention to rest. High-quality prekindergarten has powerful long-term cognitive effects.

The researchers, based at Georgetown University, began tracking these children in 2006 and followed them through the eighth grade. As eighth graders, they were less likely to be held back than their classmates who did not attend preschool, and their scores on the state’s math achievement test was higher. They were also more likely to take algebra in the eighth grade — a consistent predictor of college readiness.

It’s not just that the Tulsa preschoolers were ahead of their peers academically when they got to kindergarten. While the gap in math achievement narrowed over time, the students who had gone to prekindergarten still maintained an academic advantage in middle school. When the researchers used the Tulsa data to project the impact of the program into adulthood, they concluded that because of those youngsters’ higher projected income and diminished likelihood of incarceration, every dollar invested in quality preschool could generate a two-dollar return.

Oklahoma was a ripe test case state for the study. Although it is a deeply conservative state, with a bare-bones education budget, it has offered universal access to high-quality preschool since 1998. Because they work within the public school system, pre-K teachers earns the same as high school chemistry teachers. Consequently, unlike the ill-paid prekindergarten teachers in many communities who typically leave the field after a few years, these educators stay on the job, continuing to hone their craft. The classes are small — Oklahoma mandates that there be no more than 20 children, with two teachers, a ratio that early-education experts recommend — and well stocked with everything from Legos and microscopes to puzzles and dress-up clothes. The researchers also found that Tulsa’s preschool teachers devoted more time to academics and were likelier to talk with, not at, their students, than their counterparts in 11 other states.