Why Pre-K Works

What Is High Quality Pre-K?

Since ninety percent of brain development occurs during a child’s first five years of life, early childhood experiences establish either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for everything that follows. High-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten (pre-k) for four-year-olds is an effective early childhood education program that prepares children to succeed socially, emotionally and academically in kindergarten and beyond.

Alabama’s state funded pre-k program, First Class, has been recognized by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) for twelve years in a row for meeting all 10 of the Institute’s research-based benchmarks for quality. NIEER’s Quality Standards Checklist represents a set of minimum policies needed to ensure the effectiveness of preschool education programs in preparing children for success in kindergarten and beyond.

NIEER Quality Standards Checklist

1. Early Learning and Development Standards (ELDS): A state’s ELDS specify a program’s goals. Clear and appropriate expectations for learning and development across multiple domains are an essential starting place for quality.

2. Curriculum supports: A strong curriculum that is well-implemented increases support for learning and development broadly, and includes specificity regarding key domains of language, literacy, mathematics, and social- emotional development.

3. Teacher degree: State policy must require lead teachers in every classroom to have at least a bachelor’s degree.

4. Teacher specialized training: Policy must require specialized training in early childhood education and/or child development.

5. Assistant teacher degree: Policy must require that assistant teachers hold a CDA or have equivalent preparation.

6Staff professional development: Both teachers and assistant teachers must be required to have at least 15 hours of annual in-service training.

7. Maximum class size of 20.

8. Maximum staff-child ratio of 1:10.

9. Screenings and referrals: Policies should require that preschool programs ensure children receive vision, hearing, and other health screenings and referrals.

10Continuous Quality Improvement System (CQIS): An effective CQIS operates at local and state levels to ensure that information is gathered regularly on processes and outcomes, and that this information is used to guide program improvement. To meet this benchmark, policy must at a minimum require that (1) data on classroom quality is systematically collected at least annually, and (2) local programs and the state both use information from the CQIS to help improve policy or practice. The use of a cycle of planning, observation, and feedback has characterized highly effective programs.

Return On Investment

Every $1 invested in high-quality pre-k produces a return-on-investment (ROI) of approximately $7.

Pre-k results in savings by reducing the need for remedial and special education, welfare, and criminal justice services.

The Chicago Longitudinal Study reported a $7.14 to $1 benefit-cost ratio for high-quality pre-k (Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, & Mann, 2002). The Chicago pre-k programs in this study were similar to Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program in design and cost. Other benefit-cost analyses, such as that of the Perry Preschool Program (Schweinhart, Montie, Xiang, Barnett, Belfield, & Nores, 2005) have produced much higher estimated returns, up to $16 to $1. Taking into consideration these and other studies, the $7 to $1 figure is a reasonable estimate for the returns to public investment in one year of high-quality pre-k.


Business Case for Pre-K

NEW Alabama School Readiness Alliance brief summarizes the research and gives concrete examples of how Alabama businesses are helping to expand access to high-quality pre-k.

Business Education Alliance 
Learn more about the ROI of high-quality pre-k from Alabama’s Business Education Alliance

A business partnership for early childhood and economic success

Dollars and Sense: A Review of Economic Analyses of Pre-K
Albert Wat, Pre-K Now, May 2007

Economics of Pre-K in Alabama: Results and Analysis
M. Keivan Deravi, Ph. D., Professor of Economics, Auburn Montgomery, October 2007

Timothy Bartik: The economic case for preschool
VIDEO: In this well-argued talk, Timothy Bartik makes the macro-economic case for preschool education — and explains why you should be happy to invest in it, even if you don’t have kids that age (or kids at all). The economic benefits of well-educated kids, it turns out, go well beyond the altruistic. (Filmed at TEDxMiamiUniversity.)

Other Evidence

Numerous evaluations show that high-quality pre-k improves educational achievement

Numerous evaluations have shown that high-quality, voluntary state-funded pre-k programs significantly improve children’s school readiness and lead to significant cognitive and social development among children, higher performance on achievement tests in the early grades and in some cases, reduced retention rates, producing substantial cost savings for school systems.

Source: “The Case for Pre-K in Education Reform: A Summary of Program Evaluation Findings,” The Pew Center on the States. (2010).  

High-quality pre-k produces lasting results

A meta-analysis of 123 pre-k studies found that programs with a similar design to Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program produce lasting results. The authors of this study found that the long-term cognitive gains from preschool programs were larger when programs focused on intentional and individualized teaching and small group learning (features of Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program).  Programs with this design produced long-term cognitive effects equivalent to one half or more of the achievement gap through the end of high school.

Source: “Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Early Education Interventions on Cognitive and Social Development,” Teachers College Record 112, no. 3 (2010).