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Succeed in Kindergarten, and You’re Set for Life

Horizontal axis: Kindergarten test scores; Vertical Axis: Earnings of Same Individuals at Ages 25-27

UPDATE: links to studies on pre-school in developing countries (end of post)

This blog has discussed how ancient history of countries and peoples affects development today. Now a new paper shows that your own ancient history also matters: your scores on Kindergarten tests are a good predictor of your earnings as an adult, along with other good adult outcomes.

Raj Chetty presented this paper at NYU on Tuesday: How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence from Project Star, written with John N. Friedman, Nathaniel Hilger, Emmanuel Saez, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Danny Yagan.

Under the project studied, there were random assignments of teachers and students to classes. The striking thing in the findings is the identification of  “Good” and “Bad” kindergarten classes, as shown by more variation in the Kindergarten test scores than would occur with random variation. The “Goodness” of  the classes then have significant effects on their members for all those later life outcomes.

This finding was intrinsically fascinating in itself.  It reinforces a lot of other research about the importance of early childhood for later outcomes, which deserves a lot more attention in development.

The paper has gotten a lot of media attention for something a little different: as showing that “A Good Kindergarten Teacher is worth $320,000.”

Actually, Professor Chetty was very careful in the seminar to say that there was no decisive evidence that it was the teacher who was the cause of the “Good” classes (and he never actually presented the $320,000 figure that the media has publicized).

It is certainly plausible that the teacher contributed to good kindergarten outcomes (and Professor Chetty  had some indirect but far from decisive evidence that contributed to the plausibility a little). But as with other groups of individuals: firms, cities, sports teams, book groups, societies … and now Kindergarten classes … some of the success and failure is just a mystery. Attributing it all to the “leader” (like the teacher) could be suspiciously close to one of those Fundamental Attribution Errors — we want to identify group success with one Brilliant Good Person — but sometimes it just ain’t so. So the policy implications of this finding are …………………………………………. still a bit unclear.

UPDATE: An alert reader sent links to two more papers about early childhood and later outcomes. The sender happened to be the author, but that’s OK, please feel free to send links to your own work when it relates to a post!
The effect of pre-primary education on primary school performance

(ungated here)

Giving children a better start: Preschool attendance and school-age profiles


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  1. emily wrote:

    Worse test scores generally correlate to socioeconomic class (for many reasons, some of which have to do with the school and teacher, but often there are other issues at work). Socioeconomic class most definitely has an impact on future earnings.

    You could change the title to “Born into white, middle-class family and you’re set for life” or “Go to school in suburb instead of inner city and you’re set for life.” Certainly there are any other things impacting earnings than class, but I have many doubts that a kindergarten test score is one.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 12:59 am | Permalink
  2. Matt wrote:

    Emily – the class environments were randomly assigned, so they are using random variation to explain differences in test scores, later-life outcomes.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 7:24 am | Permalink
  3. David Zetland wrote:

    Another reason that I am happy to have attended a Montessori kindergarten (and 6 more years of school with that freedom)

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink
  4. Don Stoll wrote:

    Despite Emily’s seeming misunderstanding of Prof. Chetty’s study protocols, she has a point. Yet Chetty’s results suggest that precisely one of the factors accounting for the later-life triumphs of children who come from a “white, middle-class” or “suburb” background is success in kindergarten—making all those helicopter parents who begin shopping for kindergarten with their children still in diapers look rather less foolish. Chetty’s study also supports decades of campaigning to bring better schools to neighborhoods falling outside the charmed circle of the white, middle-class suburbs.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  5. fundamentalist wrote:

    Clearly, kindergarten grades correlate well with future earnings, but what predicts kindergarten grades? It’s very presumptuous to assume the teacher gets all of the credit. You have to include all relevant variables, such as IQ and social background.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Dan in Philly wrote:

    Correlation does not = causation. No reporter ever understands that.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  7. Syren wrote:

    “Race” is not a factor in this. At least not for MY family.

    The article doesn’t even take IQ into account any more than it does socio-economic status or parental success. It’s a poorly written and poorly researched article, without any strong basis for the argument presented. There are too many factors that are left unaddressed for any real conclusions to be drawn from the limited facts presented.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  8. Looking closely wrote:

    There is already plenty of research showing positive correlation between a persons IQ and earnings. Smarter people earn more money. Tons more showing positive correlation between IQ and standardized test scoring. More again showing IQ is at least to a significant extent heritable (plus lots of common anecdotal experience).

    Add these things up, and it really should come as no surprise that smarter kindergardeners grow up into smarter adults who are more successful.

    Of course there are going to plenty of individual exceptions, but as a broad generality, I don’t see this as particularly surprising or controversial.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  9. Lee Reynolds wrote:

    Character is destiny.

    People are who they are. A person’s fundamental nature, their fundamental character, is what it is. It isn’t completely set when someone is 5 or 6 years old, but it is well on its way there.

    So it is not the least bit surprising that students who do well in Kindergarten tend to be the very same people who do well throughout their lives.

    If you want to find the causal factors behind the differences between winners and losers, look to that kid’s parents. Look to how that kid was raised.

    Show me a kid whose parents are deeply involved in his or her life, who are a positive force who work to help that child learn, grow and mature, and who teach good values through both word and deed, and I’ll show you a kid who is going to turn out better than average.

    Show me a kid whose parents are dysfunctional idiots who yell and scream at him (when they’re not yelling and screaming at each other), who plop him in front of the TV 24/7 and who demonstrate poor values and bad decision making, and I’ll show you a kid who’ll wind up in prison, on drugs, dead, or all of the above.

    Pretending that schoolteachers have anything to do with this is just wishful thinking.

    A teacher can’t fix what parents break.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  10. Nancita wrote:

    Someone refers to a “charmed circle of the white, middle-class suburbs.”

    Parents who love their children, make them do homework, get to bed early, eat a good breakfast? This is somehow charmed and magical? And white? The writer seems to belittle good parents. And the writer sounds racist as well.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  11. Alex wrote:

    Matt – there is no way you can randomize this. The sad fact is that children from better socio-economic backgrounds are far more likely to have that excellent kindergarten teacher. But the reason they are more likely to have said teacher is because they come from a background that emphasizes excellence and has the social success to back it up. They are also in neighborhoods with better schools that attract better teachers.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  12. eots wrote:

    This correlation is impressive, however, from what I understand, multiple studies show that all pre-K Head Start gains evaporate by middle school. Of course, Head Start is just one program.
    25-27 year-old earnings seem a bit on a low side. These days many young adults are still in school, maybe in professional or graduate school. They might be making 15K today working part time, but it doesn’t mean that a year from now they will not get a six-digit salary.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  13. Heckler wrote:

    It seems logical that every factor, genetic IQ, good parents, and good teachers, will all accumulate in the same classrooms. Even if it where possible to separate those causal factors, most in the social sciences don’t want to because the results might not fit their politically correct beliefs, which is presumably why the study focused on the “class” as opposed to individual students.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink
  14. Mike Finn wrote:

    Neither of my kids went to kindergarten. Both had earnings that would be in the 90th percentile for this age group. Of course, they came from an educated family with a stay-at-home mom, and they would have scored high when at kindergarten age, if tested.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 6:41 pm | Permalink
  15. CG Chicago wrote:

    Something that should be said, IQ Testing at the Kindergarten level is pretty much bunk. Yes, if a child scores perfect they’re bright, but how bright? A kid that scores poorly may also be just as bright.

    …so if your kid doesn’t do so well in Kindergarten don’t despair.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  16. Claude Hopper wrote:

    Crap. I went to a one room school. I was the only one in the first grade. There was no kindergarten. That must have screwed me for life. My highest degree attained was am MIT PhD.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 7:46 pm | Permalink
  17. Well, everyone saw what they wanted in the Rorschach Test, didn’t they? Here’s the unpopular answer. IQ testing of young children is unstable, but that doesn’t mean that IQ is. These results support the IQ hypothesis for later success. Those who are pointing to environmental factors neglect the obvious factor that the parents had higher IQ’s, earned more, and sought better schools and districts. Which is not entirely wasted effort on their part, but not so valuable as they hoped.

    It’s not the only thing. But it’s the biggest thing. I do wonder if adaptability will increasingly be the valuable trait going forward, though.

    BTW, I’ve raised 5 sons, 3 adopted. That is not a basis for forming theories, but a great basis for exploding them.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  18. Wouldn’t low earners at ages 25-27 include medical and law students?

    Maybe we’re just studying people who mature faster, with consequent higher earning in the mid-20s.

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 11:08 pm | Permalink
  19. Francis wrote:

    Econometrics is Alchemy

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 11:11 pm | Permalink
  20. Don Stoll wrote:

    Having been accused of racism by Nancita—though I can’t tell whether she imagines that I despise white people or people of color—I must point out that “charmed circle” is an idiomatic expression denoting a privileged group or elite and having nothing to do with magic. To “belittle good parents,” as Nancita suggests I do, would of course be contemptible. But some environments—like those characterized by prosperity, safety, and expectations of opportunity—support good parenting more solidly than others do. If it were the case that one could no longer, as one could for a great many years, ascribe prosperity, safety, and expectations of opportunity in higher measure to the (largely) white, middle-class suburbs than to, e.g., the (largely) nonwhite inner city, then I would delighted.

    And if this historical gap between suburbs and inner city had vanished, then the historical gap between suburban and inner city schools would also have vanished—which is worth pointing out since this all began with a discussion of kindergarten.

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 1:01 am | Permalink
  21. richard40 wrote:

    This study is completely bogus if it purports to say anything about the teacher by measuring scores after the class ends, without measuring scores or IQ before the class begins. Maybe these $320,000 teachers just happened to draw a class of talented kids, who would suceed over the long term almost no matter what. If the study included comparisons of knowledge or IQ before and after the start of class, and then corelated those improvements with later success, that might have shown something about the teacher.

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 6:57 pm | Permalink
  22. Josh Ray wrote:

    This is interesting. Does this mean that when my wife tells me I’m too old to play with the playdough or to take a nap I can tell her those are important things that will affect our retirement? :)

    Posted November 6, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

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