Shane Heywood

Musings on market-oriented approaches to International Development

Is preschool a waste of time for children in the developing world?

Tears and excitement often make an appearance on a child’s first day in school. Adults are also sharing excitement – and maybe tears – about preschool, although in a different context.


A strong debate exists about the impact of preschool education on academic achievement. Supporters of preschool have gained influence. In one Canadian province alone, $1.5 billion CAD / year will be spent on full-day kindergarten.

A pressing question about early education is if it improves academic performance. This question matters in the context of global development: we want children from low-income households to perform better in school and do better in life.

What does the evidence say?

The evidence is conflicting; however, insights from two randomized control trials (RCT) – considered a gold standard for studying impact – paint a less-than-appealing picture for proponents of preschool.

An RCT conducted across the United States found that there was no difference in elementary school outcomes between children who had preschool and those who didn’t. Another RCT in Tennessee found that children who attended preschool performed less well on cognitive tests at the end of first grade, than children who didn’t attend preschool.

What’s good for the gander, is also good for the goose?

Yet, one of the limitations of RCTs is that findings are straddled within the context of the study. In other words, researchers are sometimes hesitant to turn insights from one study into principles applicable across geographies and time, as it can be difficult to predict similar results / insights in different settings.

Given this challenge, it may help to look at an evaluation of preschool done in the developing world.

An RCT in Mozambique found more inspiring results for the lovers of preschool. Versus children who did not attend preschool, attendees had a 12.1% percentage point increase in academic performance and were 10.2% points more likely to attend primary school.

The results on primary school attendance hold particular importance because, across countries, studies suggest that every year of primary education adds an incremental 8% in income.

So what does this mean for government and social enterprise?

Based on the mixed picture from these studies, it is less than clear that governments across the developing world – and development agencies – should support the broad-scale launch of preschool programs.

Given that primary schools – which we also know have a positive impact on livelihoods – are a basic block of education and face, among other challenges, high children and teacher absenteeism rates, it makes sense to, firstly, get primary education right.


Social enterprises, though, may have an opportunity to shed light on the impact of preschool on academic performance in specific geographic contexts. This could be done by organizations like Bridge, working with other organizations like JPAL, to assess the impact of preschool.

And given social enterprise’s unending desire for scale, if it does come out that preschool is a vital component for children’s success in the developing world, these insights could shape government policy. In turn, scale, at a preschool level, could be achieved.

Here is to (possibly?) more tears and excitement, the world over.


One comment on “Is preschool a waste of time for children in the developing world?

  1. Philip White
    December 2, 2013

    I would wager that the observed statistical insignificance in the US was skewed by by socio-economic/structural factors. Specifically, daycare/preschool facilities operating near the elementary schools their students will attend, likely enjoy/suffer from the same benefits/failings of the communities where they are located. Did the research control for these phenomena?

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