30 September 2009

How Much Better Prepared for Kindergarten Are Children Going through Head Start and State Pre-K?

Early Childhood: The Most Economically Efficient Time to Invest in a Child’s Development

Children undergo their most rapid brain development between conception and age 3. Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman has pointed out that the rapid and foundational nature of this period of early brain development means that it is an excellent time to invest in young children’s developing skills. His recent research has also demonstrated that investments in children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills after 5 can only achieve maximum effectiveness and return to society if they are built on a solid foundation of early skills development (Heckman, July 2008). Heckman reached these conclusions about early investment, in part, by studying the returns to society and the individual that were achieved by children who participated in high quality early interventions, such as the Perry Pre-school Program and the Abecedarian Program in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Measuring the Effectiveness of Current Investments in Early Brain Development

Spurred on by the hope of increasing children’s preparation for kindergarten, particularly their cognitive and social/emotional development, the federal and state government have been making investments in Head Start and more recently, state pre-kindergarten for the last several decades. However, questions still remain about how much more prepared children are for kindergarten after participating in Head Start and/or state pre-kindergarten. We also do not know a lot about whether children who participate in Head Start are better off, worse off or about the same as children who participate in state pre-kindergarten.

In order to address these questions, the researchers at Early Ed Watch have been writing an interesting series of articles comparing the salient features of Head Start and state pre-kindergarten programs around the country in order to determine whether children do better, worse or the same in each type of pre-school program. Their blog can be accessed here.

To complicate matters, programs in many communities, including Memphis are in the process of merging their state pre-kindergarten and Head Start programs so that funding can be leveraged to produce a higher quality program for more children.

Most of the national level research on Head Start comes from two studies, the Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) and the Impact Study. These studies have demonstrated that most children are better prepared for kindergarten, but their gains in kindergarten readiness are not comparable to the Perry or Abecedarian programs that helped spur public interest in funding these programs. However, in programs such as the Abbott Pre-School Program in New Jersey and the Tulsa Pre-K Program, children are seeing gains in pre-kindergarten readiness which are much more comparable to the results achieved by the Perry and Abecedarian programs.

Maximizing the Return on Our Current Investments

What are the salient features of the Abbott and Tulsa programs which helped improve student’s early learning outcomes so much? The primary factors involved appear to be higher teacher salaries and an equalization of quality standards including teacher education and ratios. Teacher salaries played a large role in increasing program quality because they attracted highly qualified individuals who are good at “engaging students in academic concepts and had a close relationship with them” (Guernsey, September 11, 2009). Giving children access to these high quality teaching experiences, in turn, significantly improved their preparation for school. For more information on this topic please see the Early Ed Watch Blog at http://www.newamerica.net/blog/early-ed-watch/2009/checking-assumptions-about-school-readiness-14507.

We are hopeful that the forthcoming collaboration of Shelby County Head Start and the Memphis City Schools pre-kindergarten teacher will allow the district to leverage funding and equalize quality standards between the two programs so that our investment in vulnerable Memphis children’s early development can be maximized.


Guernsey, Lisa. (September 11, 2009). Checking Assumptions about School Readiness. Early Ed Watch Blog. Washington D.C.: New America Foundation. Accessed September 23, 2009. <>

Heckman, James J. (July 2008). Schools, Skills and Synapses. Economic Inquiry 46, 3, 289-324.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships. (2004). Working Paper No. 1. Retrieved [August 21, 2009] from

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