Good news, ugly truth on pre-k ‘savings’

Michigan will save $39,000 in public costs for every high-risk child in pre-kindergarten — $100,000 in Detroit — according to a Fisher Foundation report. These “investment” claims should  be taken with a grain of salt, writes Sara Mead, who links to Lisa Guernsey’s analysis of the claim that preschool saves $10 for every $1 spent.

Very high-quality programs — which are not the norm — can improve outcomes for high-risk kids, Mead writes. But only 3 percent of savings from improved school readiness flow to K-12 schools, the report estimates.

. . . the really flashy high-value savings come from benefits far down the road, such as reduced crime and prison costs, (that) are hard to capture to pay for pre-k. And when early childhood advocates cite such diffuse and distant benefits to claim that the “value of investing in school readiness for just one child at risk of academic failure in Detroit, Michigan, is…about $100,000,” I worry that the perception such claims are oversold may actually increase skepticism about the value of pre-k investments, rather than building support.

It’s more persuasive to cite immediate savings to the school system, Mead argues. The Fisher researchers estimate pre-k saves $2,374 per child in reduced special education and grade retention costs, $3,376 in Detroit.  Michigan spends about $4,453 per child in pre-k. If that’s true, pre-k isn’t free but it’s awfully cheap.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Obviously, kids who are not or do not cause inordinate amounts of trouble are cheaper for society to abide.
    As always, with studies about people and programs, we have the chicken-egg issue. Hard, not to mention unethical, to run experiments sufficiently rigorous to suss out the truth.

  2. Wait, why is it bad for people to point out that there’s significant long-term cost-savings for investing in high-quality education, but good to say that in the long term kids with high-quality teachers will make more money?

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Ughh. Correlation/causation. Kids who have high quality teachers come from more affluent homes and will make more money regardless. Got to control for socio-economics then evaluate teacher effectiveness. Got a study?

  3. I would like schools to pay for expanded pre-k services to disadvantaged children by having the top 1/3 to 1/4 of students condense K-8 to 7 years. There is so much repetition and wasted time in elementary school for bright kids. I can remember learning about 1 semester’s worth of new math material in 4th and 5th grades and the rest of the time was nothing but reviewing old material. The bright kids could totally handle a compacted curriculum, and attend high school from ages 12-16 rather than 14-18. We would need to find a way to segregate the younger kids from the older ones (because I sure wouldn’t want my 12 y.o. daughter to be socializing with 18 y.o. men), but that wouldn’t be all that hard to figure out.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      but that wouldn’t be all that hard to figure out

      Au contraire. I suspect it would be very difficult to do while retaining our current age cohort model. Especially if some students are advanced in some subjects and some in others. Trying to schedule age-appropriate classes for a constantly changing group of people would be a nightmare. “Let’s see, Jimmy is in 12 year-old advanced history but in 12 year-old regular math. Molly is in 12 year-old advanced math but 12 year-old regular science …”

      If there were enough students who were good in everything, there could be a special super-advanced track exclusively for younger people. They would all be younger and all take the same advanced courses, segregated from the older kids. However, I feel failry sure that most of the people who run our schools would hate that idea.

      • “If there were enough students who were good in everything, there could be a special super-advanced track exclusively for younger people. They would all be younger and all take the same advanced courses, segregated from the older kids.”

        That’s exactly what I am advocating. Have the top 1/4 to 1/3 of kids be on an accelerated track that compacts the K-8 curriculum into 7 years. Then they all do high school from 12-16. Most districts contain multiple high schools, so it wouldn’t be difficult to put all the accelerated track kids in a few of those.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          Have you noticed if any of the top academically performing students are also interested in sports? If so, this might reduce the number of students who want an accelerated track that gets them out of high school two years early.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Another reason to stop assigning “grade” after a certain age. Determine level of competitive sports based upon age range. Determine level of competitive academics based upon ability.

            Why can’t a 16 year old high school graduate enrolled in college participate in high school level (should be community based rather than school based) sports?

            Seperate the sport from the school and base it in the community instead then kids using many different educational venues (homeschooling) can participate.

          • In my experience, some are playing sports but usually in sports that have a strong club organization, like swimming, soccer, tennis,etc.(AFAIK, football is the lone? exception, but not many top academics play football) I’m with Stacy; forget school sports (and music, theater etc) and go for community-based ones. That would allow kids to choose the level that best fits their interest and ability; anything from non-competitive rec league to prepping for the Olympics. I had 4 elite travel athletes and school sports were just an extra for them; I think that would be usual among top academics. BTW, in elite sports, the very top kids are likely to be “playing up” to older age groups anyway.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Crimson Wife, I strongly suspect that most education decision-makers would consider your idea undemocratic and racist, since in most places the accelerated track would have an overrepresentation of white and yellows and an underrepresentation of black and browns (to use the sorting model that is popular in the business).

          • I don’t buy the “it’s racist” argument because in many districts, the student population hardly has any non-Asian minority students. In the town where I grew up, the student population is 86% white, 7% Asian, and 2% each black & Hispanic. In the town where we live in California, the student population is 75% white, 14% Asian, 5% Hispanic, and 2% black.

            The problem isn’t race but that while we’re plenty willing to admit different children have differing levels of athletic or musical ability, it’s taboo to acknowledge differences in academic ability.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Crimson Wife, You don’t buy the “it’s racist” argument but just about everyone who makes decisions in education does.

            While people disagree about whether there is any difference in “academic ability” between yellow, white, brown, and black, everyone agrees that there is a substantial difference in “academic achievement.” So everyone knows that ability grouping and ability tracking is going to “overrepresent” people from the first two colors and “underrepresent” people from colors three and four. Which, in the present climate of opinion, means it won’t be done.

          • Unfortunately, it’s a good idea, but a political non-starter. It’s the same issue that wiped out the kind of vo-tech programs offered at the HS where my FIL was the principal. The PC version was that poor and minority kids were pushed into vo-tech and were not welcomed in college-prep – regardless of actual academic performance and/or motivation. I can’t say whether or not that was usually or often the case or if it was family/individual choice. Today, an over-representation of URMs in vo-tech vs. college prep would be unacceptable, even if it was entirely their choice; therefore, no one will be allowed to have that choice. The ed world is fixated on the one-size-fits-all model and (the appearance of) equal outcomes.

          • just about everyone who makes decisions in education does

            That doesn’t explain the hostility towards tracking/acceleration in schools where there aren’t significant numbers of poor and/or non-Asian minority students (or conversely, schools where nearly all students are poor and/or non-Asian minorities).

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Crimson. It might work in your town where 2% is not much more than a rounding error. But the obvious issue is pretty much everywhere else.
    And then the disparity is far beyond a rounding error and the howls will begin.

    • But most public schools these days are non-diverse. The majority of white students attend schools that are 80% or more white. The majority of black and Hispanic students attend schools that are 70% or more black & Hispanic. 1/3 attend schools that are more than 90% black & Hispanic.

      I just think race is a red herring in the discussion about tracking because there are so few schools integrated enough for it to be a real concern.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        But as any student will tell you, “So-and-so’s class gets to do it . Why can’t we?”

        “So-and-so school gets to do it. Why can’t we?”

        “Well, you see, they’re not diverse, and we are.”

        Yeah, that’ll work.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    Super-tracking in a 100% white or 100% black school isn’t going to lead to “overrepresentation” and “underrepresentation” (the laws of arithmetic guarantee that if you have one, you have the other). However, super-tracking in a 20% black school is going to lead to a super-track that is less than 20% black. Everyone in education knows this and most everyone very much doesn’t want that to happen.

    I can think of only five possibilities for avoiding it. One, improve the first few years of school so much that racial disparities disappear. Two, get enough people into wonderful pre-school programs that racial disparities disappear. Three, a massive change in attitudes and behavior that make “black culture” more academically oriented. Four, manipulate the standards to include blacks with “potential.” Five, drop the idea entirely.

    Nobody knows how to do the first two. The third isn’t going to happen. Four is the most likely to be tried, but most student’s potential won’t turn into performance (we don’t like to think about it but 50 years of experience with affirmative action tells us that is the sad truth). Which leaves five.