Only programs of high quality pre-k produce benefits that last throughout the lifetime of the child. These benefits are not measured with higher test scores but rather with skills that help the child be a better student and a better person. To be more specific, these lasting benefits are a result of increased executive functioning skills. Executive functioning skills include the ability to delay gratification, to have self-control, to focus, to cooperate, and to problem solve. Executive functioning skills also include spontaneity, creativity, better focus, persistence, and the ability to take another’s perspective and show empathy and kindness to others. In a quality pre-k program, skilled teachers provide the type of activities that help develop executive functioning. Test scores are not a good measure of the benefits of a quality pre-k because a child who is top of his/her class in Kindergarten only has a 40% chance of being top of the class at the end of third grade. I contend that the goal of pre-k is not to increase test scores but to help children develop the skills that will help make them successful in life—including while they are in middle school.
The Georgetown University study concluded that for every “dollar invested in quality preschool could generate a two-dollar return.” However, other studies have found much higher ROI results. Heckman’s Equation currently quotes the ROI at 13%. When I clicked on the link in the Op Ed, I found that the authors of the analysis point to the low baseline crime rate in Tulsa (less chance of being incarcerated later) and more modest prediction of future income. They also wrote their report at the end of the children’s 9th Grade years. Recent reports from the Perry Preschool Project, who have been following their cohort for fifty years now, found that the benefits were still being actualized: Higher income, lower divorce rate, less depression, and less health issues including obesity! Some benefits have no dollar value.
I have long been troubled by the reports that the effects of pre-kindergarten do not last into the elementary years. Based on test scores alone, many researchers have argued that the gains children receive in pre-kindergarten do not have an effect on math or reading scores in the third grade and higher. This has led many conservative think tanks and elected officials to decry investing in pre-kindergarten programs. What this research often fails to note, is that test scores is not the only way to measure the effects of pre-kindergarten over time. This study on the effects of pre-kindergarten in Tulsa, shows that students enrolled in pre-k not only had higher math scores, but were more likely to take algebra and less likely to be held back a grade. Attending a high quality pre-kindergarten program is like getting a booster shot. The results might not be evident right away, but it is designed to support what kids already have to provide them with the tools they will need as they get older.