How important is kindergarten?

In California, kindergarten is optional - so what's the value of kindergarten? A team of Harvard, Stanford and Northwestern economists found out.

The New York Times  reported on a Harvard economics study that evaluated the impact of kindergarten on lifetime earning capacity of the students – in an experiment called Project Star that began in the 1980s and studied 12,000 students from  mixed socioeconomic backgrounds so that they could factor out the impact of socioeconomic advantage. The net present value of the impact of a good kindergarten teacher was calculated as $320,000 in additional lifetime earning (see the slides from the economists' presentation). Interestingly, this increased earning potential wasn’t accompanied by measurable differences in standardized tests. Turns out that the test benefits go away, but the earning benefits do not.

Many high-achieving parents, kindergarten seems like a waste of time before children start to do the real work of school. Other parents don’t feel concerned with large class sizes in kindergarten or only 2 hours of kindergarten per day (budget cut impacts) because hey – it’s only kindergarten. So what did my children learn from a good kindergarten teacher?

In kindergarten, my children learned how to be part of a team when they work together on projects. They learned how to wait their turn to be called on and how to support each other when they struggle.  They learned patience, although they still call out. They learned appropriate behavior in school – manners and kindness – and the consequences of inappropriate behavior. They learned to persevere.  They learned to create and to appreciate other’s creations.

Our kindergarten is full day and only has 18 children in a class with a senior and associate teacher. Of course they learned numbers, dates, days of the week, letters.  They also learned the Aleph Bet (Hebrew alphabet) and Jewish traditions. They learned about their environment and caring for the earth as well as caring for people who need help.

I think a great kindergarten teacher establishes expectations of school – that learning is fun, communal and rewarding. And not only do these teachers impact lifetime earning potential, but as I told a parent who wanted to skip kindergarten – it teaches the very skills that enable children to be independent, responsible citizens when they graduate college. Besides which, it’s fun – who wouldn’t want to go back to kindergarten?