Expert Commentary

How does your kindergarten classroom affect your earnings?

2010 study from Harvard, Northwestern, and the University of California, Berkeley, researchers on the potential long-term effects of high-quality early education.

As state and local budgets tighten in difficult economic times, funding for kindergarten and other early childhood education programs often suffers. Determining their importance in the outcomes of students’ lives is difficult, as is the effect of having high-quality instruction — does it make a difference? Studies have shown an improvement in standardized test scores, but this effect seemed to fade with time.

To better understand the potential long-term effects of high-quality early education, researchers from Harvard, Northwestern and UC Berkeley followed participants in STAR, an experiment that took place in 79 Tennessee schools from 1985 to 1989, later in life. The project involved more than 11,000 students and their teachers in kindergarten through third grade; children were randomly divided between small and large classes, and less- and more-experienced instructors. The students, 36% of whom were African-American, remained in the same-size classes through third grade and took yearly standardized tests.

To look at lingering effects of the STAR program, researchers examined factors such as income, university attendance, marital status and home ownership. The resulting study, “How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence From Project STAR,” was published in 2010.

The findings include:

  • Students who were randomly assigned to higher-quality kindergarten through third-grade classrooms earn more, are more likely to attend college, save more for retirement and live in better neighborhoods.
  • Small kindergarten classes are linked to higher test scores, which in turn improve a student’s chances of attending college.
  • Increasing class quality by one standard deviation of the distribution within schools raises earnings by $1,520, almost 10%, by age 27. This translates into a lifetime earnings gain of approximately $39,100 per individual.
  • The present-value benefit of improving class quality by one standard deviation for a single year is $782,000.
  • While students in better classrooms do not do significantly better on standardized tests in later grades, improvements in non-cognitive skills may explain the benefits that emerge in adulthood.

The researchers conclude that modest investments in early childhood education have the potential to yield significant returns. Similarly, increasing the size of classes for kindergarten through third grade can be costly, both for the individual and society at large.

Tags: children, parenting, African-American

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