Effects of Public Preschool Expenditures on the Test Scores of 4th Graders: An Update and Extension of Evidence from TIMSS

Thursday, January 15, 2015: 4:00 PM
Balconies I, Fourth Floor (New Orleans Marriott)
* noted as presenting author
William J. Schneider, BA, Doctoral Student, Columbia University, New York, NY
Fuhua Zhai, PhD, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY
Jane Waldfogel, PhD, Compton Foundation Centennial Professor of Social Work for the Prevention of Children's and Youth Problems, Columbia University, New York, NY
Background and Purpose

Investments and interventions made in early life yield greater benefits than those made at later stages (Esping-Andersen, 2008; Heckman, 2008). Evidence also suggests that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to experience greater benefits from early quality childcare and education than children from more affluent families (Campbell et al., 2002; Gormley & Gayer, 2005; Ruhm & Waldfogel, 2011).  As such, early childhood education and care (ECEC) has become a social welfare policy priority in many OECD countries.

Despite the push toward wider implementation of ECEC programs, public investment remains relatively low.  In recent years many European countries have begun to expand access to ECEC programs. The United States, however, continues to overwhelmingly rely on families and private programs (Waldfogel & Zhai, 2008).  The present study builds on the work of Waldfogel and Zhai (2008) to examine the impact of preschool expenditures on children’s scholastic outcomes in primary school.


We draw on data from the 1995 - 2011 waves of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in order to assess the effect of pre-primary education expenditures on test scores of 4th graders in Australia, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the U.K. and the U.S.  Our final sample includes 88,384 observations. The greatest proportion (26-35%) of children lived in the U.S. while only 0.08-0.06% lived in the Netherlands.

We use multiple waves of data across several countries and include country and time fixed effects and other controls (i.e., child, family, and school characteristics; other social expenditures).  We extend work by Waldfogel and Zhai (2008) in three ways. First, we analyze new TIMSS data on children’s academic outcomes from 2007 and 2011. Second, we estimate separate models investigating the link between preschool expenditures and test scores for disadvantaged children. Third we test two alternative specifications, controlling for overall GDP and drawing on preschool expenditures as a percent of GDP.


            The results indicate that Japan and the Netherlands out-score U.S. 4th graders in math scores by .57 and .24 standard deviations, respectively. Across all models we find small but significant effects of higher pre-primary expenditures on test scores. In addition, increased expenditures on preschool are predicted to raise scores for disadvantaged children to their country mean. Last, we find that pre-primary school expenditures as a percent of GDP may be a better measure of the impact of these expenditures.


            Our findings indicate that there are small but significant effects of public pre-primary expenditures on children’s later test scores. Importantly, we find that higher expenditures on preschool may be important in helping disadvantaged children to catch up to their more advantaged peers. Evidence that public expenditures can increase children’s life course outcomes has important implications for social work practice and policy. In addition, our finding that expenditures targeted at children early in their lives is particularly important for social work service delivery.