17 March 2010

Revisiting the Significance of Public Investment in Pre-K

Last week, the candidates for governor gathered at the Capitol for a panel discussion on issues affecting Tennessee children. One of the issues before the candidates was the future of Tennessee’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

If there is one lesson we should draw from more than forty years of careful scientific research on pre-school, it is that high quality early education makes a world of difference for children. The first few years of life are a period of profound brain development, and the quality of the pre-school experiences of children matters for their school readiness and achievement. Children who attend high quality pre-kindergarten programs are much more likely to reach school ready to learn.

A recent report out of the Tennessee Comptroller’s office appears to minimize the gains made by children in Tennessee’s pre-kindergarten program.
It would be a mistake to take this report at face value.

No children from Memphis City Schools (MCS) were included in the Comptroller’s study. This is an astonishing oversight when Memphis is the largest school district in the state, and has the largest concentration of both low-income and minority children in the state – precisely those cohorts of children most likely to benefit from pre-kindergarten.

The best national data shows that a wealth of benefits for young children and their communities follow when we invest in pre-kindergarten. Middle and upper income children do better when they reach kindergarten. Much more dramatic improvements are made by lower-income children.

When children who otherwise would be at-risk for poor educational outcomes attend high quality pre-kindergarten programs, their language and cognitive abilities improve, they are less likely to fail a grade, and they are more likely to complete high school and to enroll in college.

Memphis City Schools has administered a careful evaluation of children entering and completing pre-kindergarten each year since 2005. The evidence from this evaluation is clear: a year of pre-kindergarten helps children prepare for school. The average 4-year old in Memphis starts pre-k with language skills slightly behind what would be considered typical for a 4 year old nationally. With a year of pre-kindergarten under their belts, these same children are ahead of the curve when it is time to enter kindergarten. These children will show more rapid vocabulary growth as they progress through school, which will translate into stronger reading scores in subsequent grades.

What’s the bottom line? If we look only at the dollars, pre-kindergarten makes phenomenally good sense. For every dollar invested, pre-kindergarten programs return between $4 and $7. These returns are seen in higher rates of high school graduation, higher rates of college attendance, lower rates of teen pregnancy, lower rates of reliance on welfare, and lower rates of criminality.
In short, high quality pre-kindergarten is among the very smartest public investments we can make.

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