Is a Private Kindergarten Worth it?
Back in January, one of my clients on Fiverr asked me to proofread and edit his written responses for his daughter’s private school application. They were interested in applying for ‘lolani School, which is known as the “best private K-12 school in Hawai’i.” The application consisted of four parts, each inquiring about the candidate’s learning abilities, social relationships, parents’ visions for the school, and family activities. Hoping to present his daughter in the best light possible, the client provided four full pages of responses to the prompts.
Prior to that gig, I had proofread and edited his job search documents. (Job search documents are considered high-stakes, and clients are usually willing to spend an exorbitant amount.) I had gathered from my prior collaborations with him that he was well-educated and valued education a great deal, so I could understand that he only wanted the best for his daughter. Nonetheless, I still found it quite silly to obsess over a child’s education at the kindergarten level. Sensing my incredulity, he explained to me that the school is highly selective because “it only accepts about 13% of the applicants,” and he wanted to make the document “as good as possible.” Per his request, I provided extensive edits to improve the document’s content, flow, and grammar.
Two weeks ago, the client reached out to me on Fiverr, thanking me for my editing help. He shared the good news that his daughter had received an admission offer, and that she would be one of the 48 girls to attend the school’s kindergarten class this upcoming school year. I felt happy for them, but I remained skeptical about the need to feel so much pressure to provide his daughter with the best.
As the mother of a two-year-old, I have not given much thought to where my son’s going to attend preschool, let alone his K-12 education. In fact, I have wanted my son to enjoy sports and the outdoors and been quite hands-off with him while some of my mom friends are seeking early education classes for their children or sending them to university-affiliated or Montessori preschools. But a research study, “How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence from Project STAR,” which I came across recently while listening to Planet Money, got me to reconsider my relaxed approach.
What Does the Research Say?
Published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2011, the study was conducted by Raj Chetty and his team. Chetty is a Harvard economics professor with a track record of producing research that interrogates equality of opportunity in the U.S. and develops solutions to empower disadvantaged demographics to achieve better life outcomes. In the study, Chetty and his team claimed that “an above average kindergarten teacher generates about $320,000 more in total earnings than a below-average kindergarten teacher for a class of 20 students” (“$320,000 Kindergarten Teachers“).
Driven by the research question, “What are the long-term impacts of early childhood education,” Chetty and his team linked original data from the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) experiment to administrative data from tax returns, and discovered a strong correlation between kindergarten test scores and later outcomes in early adulthood, including college attendance, earnings, retirement savings, homeownership, and marriage. Building upon prior research, the study further investigated whether factors (e.g., class size, teacher quality, peers, etc.) that contributed to gains in achievement on standardized tests have resulted in analogous improvements in adult outcomes. First, Chetty and his team studied variation across classrooms along observable dimensions but found inconclusive results in regards to these observable classroom characteristics’ long-term impacts on earnings at age 27. Then, the team turned to the combined effects of both observed and unobserved aspects of classrooms, or “class effects,” to better understand the connection between scores, earnings, and classroom environments. Specifically, they used the average test scores of each student’s classmates at the end of kindergarten as a proxy for her “class quality,” because it detected how a child’s outcomes are correlated at the classroom level as opposed to solely peer effects.
This approach allowed Chetty and his team to examine the total effects of different sorts of classroom characteristics, both observable and unobservable, and conclude that class quality exerts significant impacts on both test scores and earnings. More precisely, they pointed out that students assigned to higher quality classes are significantly more likely to have higher earnings, attend college, enroll in higher quality colleges, and exhibit improvements in other lifetime outcomes.
Although the research succeeds in establishing how kindergarten class quality impacts future earnings and other lifetime outcomes, it does not shed light on which factors could contribute to high class quality and, in turn, improve adult outcomes. Chetty and his team believed that non-cognitive skills may be crucial to the quality of an effective kindergarten classroom. According to them, early education’s impacts on test scores fade out rapidly, but its impacts re-emerge in adulthood when non-cognitive skills are highly valued in the workplace. They also suggested that high-quality kindergarten classrooms “may build noncognitive skills that have returns in the labor market but do not improve performance on standardized tests.” They call for more empirical research on non-cognitive skills to confirm their speculation.
What Do We Make of This?
Education DOES Translate into Earnings
Education pays. If there remains any disagreement, simply take a look at the 2020 data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which help put education’s determining impact on employment and earnings in perspective. But what’s surprising about the study discussed here lies in its discovery that education as early as kindergarten exerts a long-lasting effect down the road. As Chetty and his team pointed out, quality kindergarten education is predictive of more promising adult outcomes. In particular, good early education may impart non-cognitive skills that last a lifetime–initiative, perseverance, patience, discipline, manners…. Even though some of these soft skills are not strongly predictive of test scores in later grades, they are strongly associated with career success and earning potential during adulthood.
Test scores are NOT a Valid Measurement of Education’s Long-Term Benefits
Economists have generally been quite pessimistic about early childhood interventions, despite their short-term impacts. In fact, Chetty and his team also documented a similar “fade-out effect” while analyzing sample data from Project STAR–“[t]he effect gradually fades over time, and by grade 4, students who were in a better kindergarten class no longer score significantly higher on tests.” However, by studying how those impacts re-emerge in adulthood, Chetty and his team showed that test scores are not a valid measurement of educational attainment. Evaluations based on test scores (and test scores only) can be misleading. Their research serves as a cautionary tale for education researchers and specialists–when examining education’s effectiveness, one should always take into consideration a broad set of measures. As a matter of fact, Chetty and his team acknowledged that their focus on the economic payoff of kindergarten education may subject them to negligence of non-monetary returns. After all, there is more to gain from kindergarten circle time than a gateway to economic success and stability.
A Good Kindergarten Classroom Fosters Non-Cognitive Skills
A common criticism of kindergarten education is its overemphasis on academics at the cost of play. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, schools and educators have faced mounting pressure to elevate students’ academic performance and STEM competence from both the federal government and parents. The kindergarten classroom, too, has not been immune to these efforts.
But Chetty and his team allude to the fact that non-cognitive skills, as compared to academics, are just as essential to a child’s future success. In a 2015 study, researchers revealed that kindergarten students with strong non-cognitive skills, particularly “social competence,” are not only more likely to attain higher education and well-paying jobs but also are less susceptible to mental health issues and substance abuse, or otherwise put, enjoy a higher level of wellbeing.
Considering the importance of non-cognitive skills, as the preparatory step for a child to begin formal schooling, the kindergarten classroom should provide the child with an opportunity to learn and practice the essential social, emotional, problem-solving, and study skills that she will use throughout her education.
Be Selective about Where Your Child Attends Kindergarten
Now that you recognize that kindergarten classroom environments conducive to raising test scores may also improve long-term outcomes, you should be more careful and selective when deciding where you send your child for kindergarten. But what makes a good kindergarten? How do you evaluate the quality of a classroom? Here are a few of my suggestions:
- Make careful notes about your child’s intellectual, emotional, and social developments prior to kindergarten.
- Talk to your child’s preschool teacher to verify your observations.
- Visit a few schools and talk to the principle or the kindergarten teacher to understand their values and emphases.
- Talk to parents whose child is attending kindergarten for the most up-to-date information about teacher effectiveness and quality of instruction.
- Once enrolled, check in with your child to see how she is progressing on all fronts.
Nevertheless, there is only so much parents can do. It is difficult to set standards on peers enrolled in the same class or to predict “classroom chemistry” between a particular cohort of kindergarteners. As parents, you can strive for the best for your child; but you should also understand that flexibility is another important trait you should probably model for your child.