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Another Look at the Impact of Kindergarden

As the snail-paced recovery moves forward and the availability of stimulus money fades, state and local school budgets feel the tightening of the vise. Given that we have never successfully resolved the school finance question in the United States, the script for bad times is almost predictable. And so one of the inexorable components of the script is the impact of class size on effective education. One of education research’s most infamous roller coaster rides begins anew each time money becomes short.

You can also expect when these class size debates emerge that soon thereafter we will revisit the most well-known and probably most respected of the class size studies. The so-called STAR Project – a study of 7000 young students done in Tennessee in the 80’s:

The Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) was a four-year longitudinal class-size study funded by the Tennessee General Assembly and conducted by the State Department of Education. Over 7,000 students in 79 schools were randomly assigned into one of three interventions: small class (13 to 17 students per teacher), regular class (22 to 25 students per teacher), and regular-with-aide class (22 to 25 students with a full-time teacher’s aide).  Classroom teachers were also randomly assigned to the classes they would teach. The interventions were initiated as the students entered school in kindergarten and continued through third grade.

The analysis of academic achievement consistently and significantly (p<.01) demonstrated the advantage of small classes over regular size classes and regular sized classes with a teaching assistant. As Jeremy Finn and C.M. Achilles stated in the American Educational Research Journal (Fall 1990), “This research leaves no doubt that small classes have an advantage over larger classes in reading and math in early primary grades.” Tennessee’s Project STAR was featured in the American School Boards Journal in May, 1992 and in many different periodicals since.


Although the findings of the original study through 4th grade have stood the test of time, there have been studies that show that the gains fade as students get older. Now there is a new twist. A group of economists in a recent study funded by the National Science Foundation revisited the STAR longitudinal data to see what impact a quality kindergarden experience has on later life.

Here’s what they found:

Harvard University economist John Friedman says he and a group of colleagues found that students who progress during their kindergarten year from attaining an average score on the Stanford Achievement Test to attaining a score in the 60th percentile can expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than students whose scores remain average.

Taking into account all variation across kindergarten classes, including class size, individuals who learn more–as measured by an above-average score on the Stanford Achievement Test–and are in smaller classes earn about $2,000 more per year at age 27.

The researchers think that these positive impacts in later life may be attributable to “non-cognitive impacts” – skills such as initiative, self-control. Even though there is some fade-out of gains in math and reading, the STAR study examined non-cognitive skills and found no similar fade-out.

According to lead researcher, Raj Chetty, “based on the predictive value of future educational accomplishment, earnings, and general happiness, a good kindergarten teacher’s contribution to society should be valued at about $320,000 a year.” (see Esquire profile)

For a longer discussion on the study check these links:

John Friedman discusses study on NSF site

Focusing on Kindergarden WBUR- Boston

One Comment
  1. I’d like to introduce you to my blog about early childhood education for parents and teachers. I think that your readers might find it interested. I taught pre-k, kindergarten and first grade at P.S. 321 (over a period of 20 + years.) My daughter went to 321, now her husband teaches 5th grade there and her son is in 4th grade. My husband and I have lived in the Slope for 44 years (It’s hard for me to believe that it’s so long!)

    I have just posted a new entry, Following the Children’s Life Force, on my blog Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play

    I hope that you and your parent community will have a chance to read it. I love reading your thoughts, questions and other responses on the blog site. You can reply to the blog and/or read what others have to say by clicking on the entry title. That will open up the new page.

    December 12, 2010

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