Panel discussion focuses on the current state of research on pre-K

On Wednesday, February 17, the Upjohn Institute’s Tim Bartik participated in a forum entitled, “Does pre-K work: A look at the research.”

Here, Bartik reflects on the event, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. How can policymakers best put what is known about pre-K into practice that supports both children’s growth and economic development? Video is available through AEI.

Tim BartikTo recap the discussion, Georgetown’s Bill Gormley argued that there is much good evidence that pre-K can work. Vanderbilt’s Dale Farran, a lead researcher on the Tennessee pre-K experiment, argued that many of the state pre-K programs are not as high quality as model programs, and that we need to know more about what determines pre-K quality. Most skeptically, Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst argued that pre-K has been oversold as a magic bullet.

Beyond the views expressed at this forum, there is a general consensus among researchers  that pre-K can work. For example, see this recent research consensus letter, signed by over 500 researchers. But making pre-K work requires ensuring its quality is uniformly high, and that’s where things get tricky.

We know enough to move forward with a significant expansion of pre-K, but we should provide the funding and services needed to make that pre-K high-quality. We should err on the side of overinvesting in quality, while answering the many remaining research questions by evaluating alternative program designs.

Policymakers’ decisions about pre-K expansion are subject to two types of errors.  The first error is to expand a low-quality pre-K program, whose few benefits are outweighed by costs. The second error is to NOT expand a high-quality pre-K program, which could have helped many children attain greater adult success.

Pre-K is not a magic bullet that solves all problems of income inequality, but there is good evidence that high-quality pre-K can increase adult earnings by 10 percent or more. This does not solve all social inequities, but it makes progress at a high benefit-cost ratio.  This argument is documented in my recent book, From Preschool to Prosperity, available for free download at the Upjohn Institute website.

The real research issue for pre-K is not whether pre-K can work – we know it can – but how to design a pre-K system so that we can learn more about what best makes for high-quality pre-K.

We need to expand pre-K towards universal access for all children at age 4. That system should over-invest in quality features such as paying enough to hire and retain quality teachers, and providing teacher coaching services.  The benefit-cost ratio for even small improvements in quality is huge. If we get a better teacher, this benefits many kids in each class affected by that teacher, and many classes over time.

Because the benefits of quality improvements are large, we need to evaluate experiments with many different designs of pre-K, which explore different ways of hiring and training teachers, and different approaches to delivering pre-K.

State and local governments have considerable incentives to expand pre-K on their own, because it will boost growth and help many families.  But because quality is hard to measure, state and local governments lack sufficient incentive to invest in high-quality. In addition, state and local governments lack sufficient incentive to invest in evaluation, as evaluation’s benefits are national. Therefore, we need local initiatives, but combined with quality and evaluation being supported at the national level, by some combination of the federal government and national foundations.

The Upjohn Institute is an independent, non-profit, and non-partisan research organization. The findings expressed here are those of Bartik, based on his own research and his interpretation of the findings of the broader research literature, and should not be interpreted as official views of the Upjohn Institute.


Timothy J. Bartik headshot

Timothy J. Bartik

Senior Economist

Research Topics: Early Childhood Education