Benefits of Pre-K do not fade with age


This term has been used to describe chilling findings from a Tennessee study of the effects of that state’s pre-kindergarten program on children’s later development. In that study, children who participated in Tennessee’s program demonstrated gains in cognitive skills by the end of the program that were followed by sharp declines when these children entered elementary school. Skeptics want to use those “fadeout” findings to fade out state funding for North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten program, called NC Pre-K. Before we act impetuously, however, it is important to examine the experiences of children in our state.

It turns out that NC Pre-K (as well as Smart Start, which serves younger children) continues to have strikingly positive benefits for children that do not fade out at all. Instead, our latest research confirms those benefits last at least through the end of eighth grade.

Helen Ladd, Clara Muschkin, Yu Bai, and I have tracked over one million children born in our state between 1988 and 2000 across their preschool years through the end of eighth grade. Because state funds for NC Pre-K (previously called More at Four) were allocated to some counties in some years at higher levels than in other counties and other years, some children were lucky enough to be four years old living in a county where the program was well-funded, while other four-year-old children lived in less well-funded counties. We have reported previously that while they were in elementary school, children in cohorts with average state funding demonstrated higher test scores in reading and math, less grade retention, and fewer placements into special education, compared with children in cohorts with less or no funding.

Our new analyses, just released as a working paper, show that the positive impacts of NC Pre-K and Smart Start continue through grades 6, 7, and 8. There is no fadeout. In fact, the impact grows. By eighth grade, for children in counties with average funding, NC Pre-K has reduced the likelihood of placements into special education by over one third. We find positive impacts for every group of children we studied, including economically disadvantaged as well as advantaged children; African American, Hispanic, and white non-Hispanic children; and children whose mothers are well-educated as well as those whose mothers are less well-educated.

The findings are clear: The more funding that North Carolina invests for NC Pre-K (and Smart Start), the better children will fare as they get older. The benefits from that investment will not fade out but will grow over the lives of these children.

How do we reconcile these encouraging North Carolina findings with the discouraging Tennessee findings? We believe both studies report true findings. The difference is that not all pre-k programs are the same. North Carolina’s program has high quality standards that require small class sizes, teacher credentials, and other features. Furthermore, North Carolina’s elementary school curriculum is designed to build on, and not undermine, the effective curriculum created for NC Pre-K. Perhaps most important of all, N C Pre-K is delivered to a high proportion of four-year-olds in the population so that when a child enters elementary school, that child will benefit by being in a classroom surrounded by peers who had participated in NC Pre-K and are ready to learn. School teachers will spend less time remediating and more time accelerating children’s learning. Everyone benefits.

The message of our new findings is that North Carolina’s two nationally-renowned signature early childhood programs, Smart Start and NC Pre-K, produce benefits that last. To grow these benefits, state funding for these early childhood programs must grow and must be coupled with equally healthy funding for high-quality public schools.

Kenneth A. Dodge is Pritzker Professor of Public Policy at Duke University..