When debating bang-for-the-buck in early childhood education, most people focus on academic results. That is, improving the ability of kids to absorb what their teachers want them to learn. But the real prize is life outcomes, and on this, convincing evidence is harder to find.
As reported in the Times, a handful of preschool programs — in Michigan, North Carolina and Illinois — have tracked children through adulthood and found encouraging long-term benefits, particularly around decreased criminal involvement when students grow up. But those studies are decades old.
In 2011, however, researcher William Gormley published a paper projecting the future earnings of 4-year-olds in Tulsa, Okla., preschools and forecast that each would make an extra $27,179 to $30,148 over the course of their working lives. (Defined here as the time between age 22 and 66.)
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Gormley’s study riffs off the work of Harvard economists who matched test scores from kindergarteners in Tennessee with their later-in-life tax returns, and found that higher scores were closely correlated with college attendance, home ownership and larger incomes. For every percentile increase in test scores, Raj Chetty calculated a $73 increase in annual earnings.
“Given that the Tulsa pre‐K program boosted percentile test scores by 8 to 20 percent, the implied effects are quite large,” Gormley said in an interview. “Clearly, we are projecting here. But we’re doing it in an informed way, splicing together hard numbers on short-term effects from Tulsa with hard numbers on the connection between test scores at kindergarten and adult earnings later on in life.”
The impact on future income was greater for children from poorer families, and it was predicated on kids attending a quality preschool, In Tulsa, for example, all pre-K teachers have bachelor’s degrees, are trained in early education and get paid at the same rate as other public school educators.
Because Gormley considered the cost-benefit of pre-K only in terms of future income — ignoring the possible effects of reduced crime — he believes that his analysis, though imperfect, is probably an under-estimate.