Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Each Year of Education Matters

States like Oregon are in a fiscal mess as a result of the recession and are being forced to go through some 'belt tightening.' In Oregon, since the state general fund is vital to education funding, this means some pretty severe cuts to K-12 education.

But does it really matter that much if a kid has a year or two of substandard education from such budget cuts through such measures as reduced instructional days or larger class sizes?


New research by a gaggle of economists has found that the quality of a child's kindergarden itself has lifelong implications for children. Here is The New York Times' article and here is a follow up blog post. From the article:

How much do your kindergarten teacher and classmates affect the rest of your life?

Economists have generally thought that the answer was not much. Great teachers and early childhood programs can have a big short-term effect. But the impact tends to fade. By junior high and high school, children who had excellent early schooling do little better on tests than similar children who did not — which raises the demoralizing question of how much of a difference schools and teachers can make.

There has always been one major caveat, however, to the research on the fade-out effect. It was based mainly on test scores, not on a broader set of measures, like a child’s health or eventual earnings. As Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, says: “We don’t really care about test scores. We care about adult outcomes.”

Early this year, Mr. Chetty and five other researchers set out to fill this void. They examined the life paths of almost 12,000 children who had been part of a well-known education experiment in Tennessee in the 1980s. The children are now about 30, well started on their adult lives.

On Tuesday, Mr. Chetty presented the findings — not yet peer-reviewed — at an academic conference in Cambridge, Mass. They’re fairly explosive.

Just as in other studies, the Tennessee experiment found that some teachers were able to help students learn vastly more than other teachers. And just as in other studies, the effect largely disappeared by junior high, based on test scores. Yet when Mr. Chetty and his colleagues took another look at the students in adulthood, they discovered that the legacy of kindergarten had re-emerged.

Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.

All else equal, they were making about an extra $100 a year at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten. A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too.


The crucial problem the study had to solve was the old causation-correlation problem. Are children who do well on kindergarten tests destined to do better in life, based on who they are? Or are their teacher and classmates changing them?

The Tennessee experiment, known as Project Star, offered a chance to answer these questions because it randomly assigned students to a kindergarten class. As a result, the classes had fairly similar socioeconomic mixes of students and could be expected to perform similarly on the tests given at the end of kindergarten.

Yet they didn’t. Some classes did far better than others. The differences were too big to be explained by randomness. (Similarly, when the researchers looked at entering and exiting test scores in first, second and third grades, they found that some classes made much more progress than others.)

Class size — which was the impetus of Project Star — evidently played some role. Classes with 13 to 17 students did better than classes with 22 to 25. Peers also seem to matter. In classes with a somewhat higher average socioeconomic status, all the students tended to do a little better.

But neither of these factors came close to explaining the variation in class performance. So another cause seemed to be the explanation: teachers.

Some are highly effective. Some are not. And the differences can affect students for years to come.

This is, frankly, a staggering result. When I have talked about the Obama administration's emphasis on collecting and examining longitudinal eductation data I tell them that it represents a way of moving beyond test scores as measures of tecaher and school effectiveness. I emphasize that it allows us to focus on outcomes not test scores. This is a perfect example. I also emphasize that it is important to try reforms so that we can tell what works. In this case it is the amazing STAR study done in Tennessee.  As I have written about before both here and in The Oregonian the STAR study provides a unique opportunity to study the effect of class size - which was found to have real and important impacts.  But, as this study emphasizes, it is the teachers themselves that are the most important factor by far (and as I have said it is impossible to predict success in the classroom of potential teachers so it is important to have a way of rewarding the good ones and discouraging the bad ones).  

Anyway, what this study says is that kindergarden itself has lifelong consequences for kids and it is not hard to imagine that this is true, to varying degrees, of each individual year of education.  So these occasional budget slashing years are doing irreparable harm to our kids.  And as the follow up blog post emphasizes, unlike a lot of other effects, the effect identified in this paper (in terms of adult outcomes) are the same for rich and poor kids.  So everyone should be concerned.

And if this isn't a clarion call for a permanent rainy-day fund, I don't know what is.


Fred Thompson said...

Who would have believed Robert Fulghum (All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten) was right?

BJCefola said...

What strikes me is that the study could identify quality teachers and correlate them with future success while controlling for socioeconomic variables. And in particular, test scores were the key indicator.

Isn't a lot of the criticism of ranking and merit pay based on the belief that you can't do this?

Chuck Sheketoff said...

I've always been suspicious of the ECONorthwest/Chalkboard Project conclusion from studying the Tennessee studies that kindergarten doesn't matter - full-day kindergarten never made it into their priorities.