Pre-K pays off--but how are we at delayed gratification?

See all posts

Cash-strapped states and districts would be cutting third graders' chances of reading success if they cut Pre-K. So concludes a user-friendly report by the Center for Public Education's Jim Hull.

Poring through NCES data, Hull shows that children who got full-day Pre-K and half-day kindergarten are better at making inferences and extrapolating meaning from texts by third grade than children who got full-day kindergarten alone. What's particularly interesting is that these children apparently went to "average" Pre-K classrooms (which experts will tell you is faint praise).

The news isn't all good. Children of mothers with no more than a high school diploma generally didn't gain much from attending these "average" Pre-K classrooms. This is a striking difference from other studies of the impact of high-quality early childhood programs that generally show that the most disadvantaged children benefit the most. (Maybe it's because these children are more likely to go to Pre-K classrooms with ineffective teachers. A better evaluation system for early childhood teachers, which we explore below, might help with that.)

Nonetheless, Hull's findings provide strong backing to the notion that even in its current, highly imperfect form, Pre-K should be considered at least as essential a school grade as any other. But given the churn rate of superintendents, it's hard to see why they might think it's in their professional self-interest to sacrifice other popular programs for Pre-K's sake. Perhaps districts should be held accountable for Pre-K quality--measured in part by assessments of student growth-- in the same way they are held accountable for 3rd-grade test scores. That might instill in their superintendents the kind of long-term perspective that such investments require.