Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Diane Schanzenbach
Photo by Andrew Campbell

Studies by associate professor Diane Schanzenbach demonstrate the adult impact of kindergarten on earnings, savings, education, neighborhood and more.

“We need to keep in mind that first of all education is an investment that pays back in the long run and secondly is not limited to what’s measured on traditional standardized tests.”

-Diane Schanzenbach

Doing the Math: How Investments in Kindergarten Education Pay Back

By Julianne Beck
Doing the Math How Investments in Kindergarten Education Pay Back

It adds up. Quality early childhood education equals success in adulthood, according to new research by Diane Schanzenbach, associate professor with Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. Her findings may influence investments in education on local and national levels.

A collective gasp rose from the audience when Schanzenbach’s team first shared their findings at the 2010 National Bureau of Economic Research conference. “Being able to correlate kindergarten test scores to adult earnings is not something that people had seen before,” she says. And that was just half of the story.

The surprising findings stem from Project STAR, a study that began when 11,571 students in Tennessee and their teachers were randomly assigned to kindergarten classrooms in 79 schools. When the students reached the age of 27 in recent years, Schanzenbach and her team compared data from their tax returns to the early data. They measured the students’ success in young adulthood by factors including wages, level of education, marital status, retirement savings and neighborhood.

Because Project STAR was a randomized, controlled experiment, the findings solely measure the impact of variables within the classroom such as class size, teacher experience levels and access to resources. The study results were not influenced by external factors in students’ lives, such as family income.


What are the elements of a quality kindergarten classroom? Test scores, long considered an effective means of evaluating academic progress, are an important proxy for success, says Schanzenbach, who is also a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. However, she notes, those scores are only one piece of a bigger picture. “When I think about the overall early childhood/kindergarten experience, there are two prongs,” she says. “One is setting students up on a firm foundation so that they can read and evaluate — things that are reasonably well measured by some of those tests, and then there is this whole other piece that is not measured by standardized tests. What we need are classroom experiences that are rich in both.”

The other piece Schanzenbach refers to is the opportunity to develop social, behavioral and emotional skills. She found that these skills come from a combination of good classroom management by qualified teachers and access to resources, often a function of smaller size classes

Earlier studies have shown that students in high-quality early childhood classrooms with good adult outcomes do not necessarily perform well on standardized tests in later grades. Schanzenbach’s study found that the early lessons improving “soft skills” continue to reap benefits into adulthood.

School of Education and Social Policy graduate Alese Affatato (MS04) teaches kindergarten in Chicago Public Schools at Nixon School. She has witnessed firsthand the importance of teaching both academic and emotional skills. “Those social, behavioral and emotional skills — if children don’t have those in place, they can’t learn. They can’t learn the academics at all,” she says.

Affatato, despite the size of her urban kindergarten classroom with 35 students, teaches in differentiated small groups daily and offers individual conferences to ensure the development of those skills. “I think it’s crucial to catch children at a time in their developmental life when they are really soaking all this in,” she says. Among other skills, she works with students on understanding how the school schedule runs, how to organize school supplies and how to interact with others.

Named her school’s Teacher of the Year, Affatato largely credits her Northwestern education with preparing her to make a difference in her classroom. “I am modeling what it is to be a professional, hard-working, insightful, reflective adult,” she says. “I got those skills from how I was raised, but also from my educational level.”


Schanzenbach’s study shows that students who were randomly assigned to high-quality kindergarten classrooms, those that yielded better test scores as well as better social, behavioral and emotional skills, went on to attend the best colleges, purchase homes in good neighborhoods and save for retirement. Combined with solid academic lessons as shown in test scores, these students also earned higher wages than their counterparts.

What do these findings mean for policymakers? Given the long time frame of the study and its randomization, “we know that what we are measuring in terms of outcomes is the causal impact of the policy changes that were occurring,” says Schanzenbach. Her findings suggest that, while academic preparation can be measured in the short term on tests, the enduring impact of those lessons as well as lessons in the “soft skills” are best measured in the long term through other means.

Her study documents that, although the traditional means of measuring educational impact by test scores has merit, classroom environments with essential elements result in enduring long-term outcomes and the highest level of personal and financial success.

She values the ability of policy to make long-term impacts. The big takeaway from her study, says Schanzenbach, is that “investments made in young kids really pay off.”

Ten years from now, she hopes to take another look at the lives of the study subjects from Project STAR. The wait for new data does not concern her. After all, she had to wait nearly 15 years to release this new report after her days as a graduate school student when she first studied the original data. “I’d been waiting to write this paper … so we could see what happened to their real-life outcomes,” she says.

Until she returns to this research in the future, she plans to continue studying other factors that she believes influence education, such as access to good nutrition from an early age. She will also look for opportunities to engage with other researchers at Northwestern who, she says, are looking at the same questions from different angles.

For now, she hopes that her findings “will motivate teachers. The best teachers believe they are making a lifetime impact on their kids, and the results of this study confirm that indeed their impacts can be measured decades into the future.”