THE BLOG
09/30/2014 07:23 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Pre-K's Potential as Part of a Comprehensive Pro-Children Strategy

This post is co-authored by Tim Bartik, a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and author of the new book, From Preschool to Prosperity: The Economic Payoff to Early Childhood Education, which provides the research basis for this article.

The evidence is in: high-quality early childhood education works. Whether it's parenting programs for mothers of infants and toddlers, state prekindergarten, or full-time care from infancy through kindergarten, these initiatives more than pay for themselves, with benefits to both participants and society growing over time. That's why policymakers should advance a combination of ECE programs: voluntary pre-k for all four-year-olds, bolstered by targeted investments for higher-risk kids and their families. These programs are also critical foundations for a comprehensive strategy to boost our nation's educational achievement and economic success.

For some, this is enough. Invest in pre-k, kids will do better, education will improve. Story over.

But for skeptics, these assertions pose additional questions.

First, what does "high-quality" preschool mean? Effective early childhood programs rely on nurturing, stimulating interactions between teachers and children. This requires reasonable class sizes and salaries that can attract and retain high-quality teachers. It also requires a sound curriculum, and effective teacher training using teacher mentors. Full-day pre-K has higher benefits than half-day, and encourages more families to enroll. Universal pre-K has higher benefits, because both middle-class and low-income children benefit from pre-K, and because income-integrated programs provide positive "peer effects."

Where can we find a good model? One example is a particularly effective preschool program run by Boston Public Schools. The BPS program is open to all children in the district and is full-day, so children get a healthy dose of education, and parents can leverage the opportunity to work. Pre-k teachers are required to have the same qualifications as K-12 teachers, and they are paid on the same scale. BPS also uses a well-regarded early childhood curriculum and extensive teacher coaching. According to a recent study by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, BPS graduates saw substantial gains in mathematics, literacy, and language skills, along with smaller gains in executive function skills. In his new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, Upjohn Institute Senior Economist Tim Bartik projects that these Boston test score gains will translate into earnings increases of 15 percent for low-income children, about $75,000 for each child over his or her lifetime.

How do we know that these early gains will translate into better jobs and higher earnings? Why should we believe that a government-run program, with all its bureaucracy, can deliver the benefits that a handful of small, carefully-designed, privately-run programs have? Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, for example, cites lack of progress among children in Tennessee's pre-K program to suggest that large-scale government-run programs cannot reproduce the success of small, researcher-run programs like Perry Preschool. Whitehurst fails to note, however, that the Tennessee study may be biased because the researchers could not get data for many of the students they were trying to track. Moreover, as Steve Barnett of NIEER notes, Tennessee's program is too poorly funded to count as high quality like Boston's.

And what about the so-called "fade-out" effect -- don't these early gains slip as kids get older? This issue is relevant to programs like Boston's because, unlike the studies that followed participants into adulthood, our Boston data so far has limited follow-up. Adult outcomes can only be predicted, not known for certain. If early test score gains fade as children grow older, we might not see the increased earnings, reduced crime, and other benefits that justify investments. But longitudinal studies show that despite fading of test scores, preschool can still deliver improved adult outcomes. Yes, test score gains often do fade somewhat by third grade. Not only for Head Start participants, but also for graduates of model programs, such as Perry Preschool and Abecedarian. Nonetheless, all of these programs increased adult earnings. Similar test score fading, followed by better earnings and other adult outcomes, is also found among graduates of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, a large, bureaucratic program run by a huge urban school district. It seems that improved social and character skills due to pre-k help overcome "test score fade" to raise graduation rates and increase adult earnings.

"Fade-out" is also reduced, and adult outcomes further enhanced, when quality pre-K is complemented by other supports for healthy child development, including investments in public health and nutrition programs for children, and in high-quality K-12 education. Indeed, Boston preschoolers will reap the benefits of 20 years of comprehensive Massachusetts education reform that has boosted teacher quality and developed an enriching curriculum geared to high standards. Race to the Top funds enhance resources for teachers in high-needs schools and ensure wraparound student supports. The state's universal access to health care further improves students' prospects. Above-average and rising scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, for both lower-income and higher-income Massachusetts students, provides suggestive evidence for these policies' efficacy.

Both state governments and the federal government need to step up our investments in high-quality pre-K. As they do so, looking to Boston can help demonstrate the wisdom of investing in teacher training and curriculum support, and in ensuring access for all children. It can also demonstrate why the most effective pre-K programs will be part of a comprehensive strategy for America's children.