Why early childhood education now?

As argued in my new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, expanded early childhood education represents a continuation of the American historical tradition of promoting economic opportunity and growth via expanded education. But why is there a need for early childhood education now, when apparently we did not perceive a need for such programs in the past?

First, the American economy has changed so as to put a much greater premium on higher skills. Higher wages require higher skills to a much greater extent than was true in the past. This puts pressure on policymakers to figure out as many ways as possible to improve skills, including but not restricted to early childhood education.

Second, we now understand to a greater extent the importance of early learning. It is now clear that what happens in the years from birth to age five are critical to setting the stage for later learning. This was not fully appreciated in the past.

Third, American families are now under more economic and social stress than they were in the past. Many more families need to put younger children in child care and pre-K so that parents can work. If children are in child care and pre-K settings, it makes sense to try to make those settings as high-quality as possible in promoting long-run development.

The world has changed, our scientific understanding has changed, and our families have changed. All these changes mean that broadening access to high-quality early childhood education is a needed initiative to meet the challenges of our times.

Posted in Economic development

Early childhood education is a continuation of an American tradition of promoting economic growth through education

In my new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, I put early childhood education in a historical context. The U.S. has long seen expanded education as a key to promoting a better economy.

The U.S. was a leader in expanding free public education. The “common school movement” of the 19th century advocated free public education through 8th grade. The “high school movement” of the late 19th and early 20th century expanded education access through 12th grade.

These initiatives were explicitly rationalized as a way to promote greater economic opportunity for all. For example, one of the leaders of the common school movement, Horace Mann, argued the following in 1848:

Nothing but universal education can counterwork [the] tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor. . . . If education be equally diffused, it will draw property after it by the strongest of all attractions, for such a thing never did happen, and never can happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor.

The economic development argument for promoting early childhood education is therefore not a new argument. In fact, today we have more rigorous social science evidence for expanding preschool than the common school movement and the high school movement had for expanding K-12 education. Horace Mann and the other school reformers of the 19th century were operating more on the basis of anecdote, casual observation, and instinct than on what would today be regarded as rigorous scientific evidence. Yet who can doubt that America is a far different and far better country because of our past historical commitments to free public education? Early childhood education today represents a continuation of that past progress.

Posted in Economic development

Increasing quality in preschool through accountability and mentoring

One important issue discussed in my new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, is what can be done by government to increase the quality of local pre-K programs. Although there is good evidence that a wide variety of state and local agencies can successfully implement quality pre-K programs, there is no guarantee that any particular local program will be high-quality. Regardless of whether state governments or the federal government finance pre-K, there will be some demand for accountability for results.

For pre-K, federal and state governments should resist the pressure to over-emphasize standardized tests in evaluating individual pre-K providers. I believe that there should be regular monitoring using tests of whether the overall state or federal pre-K program is improving kindergarten readiness. This can be done through comparing test scores at pre-K entrance and kindergarten entrance, and adjusting for the improvements that are due to aging alone, without pre-K, by using the range in test scores with age among each group of children. (Technically, this is referred to as doing a “regression discontinuity” study of pre-K, where we see how test scores vary with age, and then see what “jump” there is at kindergarten entrance.)

Such an evaluation of the overall program answers the important question: is this program improving overall kindergarten readiness? However, state or federal agencies overseeing pre-K funding should resist using measures of test score gains at kindergarten entrance to evaluate individual agencies, for several reasons.

The most important reason for being wary of standardized-test based accountability of individual pre-K agencies is that such a system would put enormous pressure on individual agencies to aim at maximizing the performance of 4-year-olds on standardized tests that examine cognitive skills. While cognitive skills are important, pre-K should also be aiming at improving social skills and character skills, which are hard to measure using standardized tests. Narrowing pre-K to a cognitive skills-only approach is undesirable.

For individual agencies, one approach to accountability is to use measures of classroom quality derived from the observations of trained outside observers, for example the CLASS measure of pre-K classroom quality. These measures have trained observers come in and periodically rate in a reasonably objective fashion various features of how children are interacting with each other and with the teacher. In the case of CLASS, there is some evidence that this measure is correlated with later test scores gain.

However, the CLASS measure has the significant advantage in that in looks at both quality features related to cognitive skills and quality features related to social and character skills. For example, the CLASS measure includes some measures of whether the classroom climate is positive.

The CLASS measure also has the advantage of providing useful feedback to individual programs and classroom teachers. Test-based accountability measures are more of a black box. It is difficult to use standardized test results to figure out how to improve program quality.

Observational classroom measures might be complemented by teacher mentoring/coaching approaches. Experienced, high-quality pre-K teachers might add their observations of individual classrooms, and meet with the class’s teacher to make suggestions for how the class’s quality could be improved.

Accountability is a legitimate demand of taxpayers. Quality is essential for pre-K programs to have high benefit-cost ratios. The challenge is developing a clear-cut accountability and quality improvement system that doesn’t encourage strategic behavior to maximize some test score, and that truly provides assistance that makes a difference to quality. Classroom-based observations coupled with follow-up by teacher mentors seems a reasonable approach to try. As we gain experience, we should be able to improve the usefulness and reliability of these classroom-based observations, and be able to focus the teacher mentoring on the most important elements of quality.

Posted in Early childhood program design issues | 3 Comments

Should early childhood education be financed by state governments, the federal government, or both?

One important governance issue discussed in my new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, is whether pre-K and other early childhood programs should be primarily financed by state governments or the federal government.

I’m a political pragmatist. I think either approach can work. What will prove to be politically feasible is hard to predict. However, I think that for preschool, there are advantages to state governments playing a leading role, with some federal support. In contrast, I suspect that any full-scale commitment to child care and parenting programs will require more federal involvement.

As discussed in the book, and in a previous blog post, the evidence suggests that pre-K provides broad benefits, with pre-K programs not only improving the future prospects of low-income children, but also helping children from middle-class families. These broad benefits provide a rationale for universal pre-K programs.

Universal pre-K programs are likely to attract broad voter support, particularly once they are in place. Therefore, I think it is certainly politically feasible for state governments to decide to operate universal pre-K programs, and some state governments, for example Oklahoma, have done so.

The cost of universal pre-K also seems feasible for state and local governments to finance. I estimate the additional costs of universal pre-K at around $25 billion annually. While this is a lot of money, the figure must be put in the context of the large size of the U.S. economy and of government operations. This $25 billion amounts to 1.75% of overall state and local taxes, and 4% of what we currently spend on K-12 education.

The federal government could also finance universal pre-K. However, the federal government already has a lot on its plate in dealing with the implementation of health reform, and dealing with the growing needs of an aging population. There is some wisdom in focusing federal attention where state and local governments are much less likely to do a good job.

In addition, although we know quality pre-K works, there is still uncertainty over what program designs work the best, for example in terms of what curriculum is the best and what teacher training approach is the best. This argues for allowing for considerable state and local flexibility in program design, to allow for innovation. Such flexibility may be somewhat easier with state financing than with federal financing.

However, if we want to learn from such innovation, federal involvement in funding evaluation of state and local pre-K programs would be quite helpful. The benefits of pre-K program evaluation accrue to programs everywhere, not just in the state in which the program being evaluated is located. These external benefits of evaluation imply that states on their own will tend to underfund evaluation studies, which can be corrected with federal funding of high-quality evaluations.

A similar argument supports federal funding for evaluation of alternative pre-K curriculums. The entire nation benefits from learning, for example, whether the Boston pre-K program’s use of the Building Blocks curriculum helps explain its unusually large test score effects.

Federal funding might also be quite helpful in supporting teacher mentoring and training. Underinvesting in quality can be politically tempting for state governments facing fiscal challenges. Some extra federal funds to support quality initiatives would help overcome this temptation.

For child care programs that operate in early childhood, such as Educare, federal financial support is likely to be necessary for these programs to operate at anything close to full-scale. As discussed in the book and previous blog posts, the evidence is that high-quality child care provides much greater benefits to low-income children than middle-income children. Therefore, research supports targeting such child care subsidies on low-income families.

These quality early child care programs are quite expensive, costing $16,000 per year for five years during early childhood. To operate at a full-scale that serves all disadvantaged children would cost over $50 billion per year. This cost is about 4% of state and local taxes.

It is politically difficult for state and local governments to generate political support for a program that requires a 4% tax increase for state and local voters, but then all the direct benefits go to disadvantaged families. As argued in the book and in previous blog posts, there are spillover benefits of such programs for everyone in society. However, the tax increase is still a tough initiative to sell to many state and local voters.

At the federal level, the interests of the poor tend historically to have had somewhat greater political clout (although hardly overwhelming clout) than at the state and local level. The federal government also has somewhat higher revenue-raising capacity as well.

Parenting/home visiting programs such as the Nurse Family Partnership also tend to have benefits only for lower-income families. This also argues for the need for federal support. On the other hand, these programs are considerably cheaper than free child care from birth to age 5. A full-scale NFP offering services to all first-time disadvantaged mothers would probably cost about $4 billion per year nationally. This cost is less than one-half of 1% of state and local taxes, so this seems more feasible for a sizable state and local involvement.

Full-scale implementation of a package of early childhood education programs seems more likely if we elicit the support of all levels of government. If each level of government focuses on areas where it has a comparative advantage, we are more likely to achieve a full-scale program package that is economically and politically sustainable.

Posted in Early childhood program design issues, National vs. state vs. local

What are the costs of a full-scale commitment to early childhood education?

In my new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, I outline a specific proposal, backed by research, for a full-scale early childhood program. This program consists of three components: (1) universal full-day pre-K for all 4-year olds; (2) income-targeted full-time, full-year child care and pre-K from birth to age 5 for all disadvantaged children, similar to today’s Educare program; (3) income-targeted Nurse Family Partnership home-visiting/parenting services for all first-time disadvantaged mothers.

After allowing for pre-K and child care services we are already providing through the federal government and state governments, the net annual cost of each of these components would be: (1) universal pre-K, $25 billion per year; (2) targeted child-care, birth to age 5, $58 billion per year; (3) NFP, $4 billion per year. Although these numbers add up to $87 billion, there is some overlap if all three components were funded, for example the pre-K at age 4 for disadvantaged children is part of both component (1) and component (2). Adjusting for this overlap, the net cost of the entire package would be $79 billion.

$79 billion is obviously a lot of money. But the amount represents only 2 percent of total federal, state and local taxes. Alternatively, this amount represents about 13 percent of what is currently spent on public K-12 education. Therefore, this $79 billion in annual spending represents a considerable but not outlandish increase in our investment in education, at a tax cost that is a modest increase in the overall tax burden.

The costs of this $79 billion in annual investment would be considerably outweighed by the benefits. This proposal would annually provide pre-K to 3 million 4-year-olds, and child care services to an additional 3 million children ages 0-3, along with NFP services to about 1 million families. The future earnings benefits for former child participants would have a present value of between 2 and 3 times the costs of this investment, so the package would be worthwhile for these direct benefits alone. Earnings benefits for parents from the free child care and the home-visiting services would by itself have a present value of about one-and-a-half times this investment, so the package would even be worthwhile if there were no benefits for child participants. Finally, the evidence suggests that the spillover benefits of the greater skills of former child participants and their parents on the wages of other workers would more than double overall benefits, as argued in a previous blog post. Overall, the package’s benefits should exceed 10 times its annual costs, simply in terms of increased earnings for the economy. And this does not count any benefits from reduced crime, which would be quite likely to be large.

Early childhood education at full-scale is not cheap, but is affordable. Among policy alternatives for boosting the long-run growth of the economy, early childhood education has some of the best evidence of high benefit-cost ratios that more than justify full-scale investment.

Posted in Early childhood program design issues

Fiscal benefits: pre-K pays for itself in the long-run

As I discuss in my new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, pre-K and other early childhood programs provide important “fiscal benefits”. By “fiscal benefits”, I mean increases in tax revenue or reductions in needed spending, even at the same tax rates and with the same spending policies. These fiscal benefits allow governments to lower tax rates without cutting public services, or to increase public services without increasing tax rates, either of which will benefit taxpayers.

Fiscal benefits of early childhood programs occur through several mechanisms. In the short run, the most important fiscal benefit is the reduction in special education costs. Special education is very expensive, costing as much as $10,000 per year per child. High-quality pre-K leads to significant reductions in special ed assignments. However, these reductions vary greatly from study to study, ranging from 23 to 86 percent. Although all such reductions could yield significant cost savings, especially given that special ed assignments tend to persist over most of a child’s K-12 career, the wide range means there is some uncertainty about the exact magnitude of these shorter-term cost savings. (See ReadyNation for more exploration for the potential for special ed cost-savings for financing pre-K programs.)

In the longer run, a wider variety of fiscal benefits become important. These fiscal benefits include: savings in prison costs and criminal justice system costs due to the effects of early childhood programs in reducing crime; increases in tax revenue at the same tax rates due to higher earnings; reductions in welfare costs due to higher earnings. These longer-run fiscal benefits also vary greatly from study to study. For example, in the Abecedarian study of child care and pre-K from birth to age 5, there were no significant reductions in crime. This may reflect that the control group in this study also had lower crime rates. Therefore, the fiscal benefits of early childhood programs may be greater if the programs are targeted at groups that are likely to have more substantial problems, such as involvement with the criminal justice system.

A variety of simulation studies find that in the long-run, the fiscal benefits of pre-K are sufficient for such programs to pay for themselves. However, the studies vary in how long it takes for pre-K programs to become self-financing. Lynch’s work suggests that pre-K breaks even fiscally about 9 years after the program is begun. In contrast, Dickens and Baschnagel conclude that pre-K breaks even fiscally about 49 years after the program is begun. These different break-even periods reflect different assumptions about program costs and program effects.

The challenge for public policy is that policymakers make decisions in the short-run and often take a short-run perspective. Early childhood programs require short-run investments, and aren’t self-financing immediately. However, if policymakers can be encouraged to take a longer-run perspective, early childhood programs can help improve the long-run budget position of all levels of government, federal, state and local.

Government’s goal is not to make money. However, government policymakers and the public should be concerned about fiscal commitments that might yield escalating costs over time. In the case of early childhood programs, over time the fiscal resources needed to finance these investments will diminish, and eventually the programs will help either reduce taxes or finance other public services. In the meantime, these programs will provide important benefits, both to participating children and families, and to the national economy.

Posted in Distribution of benefits, Timing of benefits

Anti-crime benefits of pre-K are another good rationale for broad public support for pre-K

Another important spillover benefit of high-quality pre-K is the effect of these programs on lowering subsequent crime rates of participants. As discussed in my new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, these anti-crime effects provide broad public benefits by reducing the odds of becoming a crime victim, and by lowering prison costs.

Benefit-cost studies of both the Perry Preschool Program and the Chicago Child-Parent Center pre-K program have found significant anti-crime benefits. When economists put a dollar value on these anti-crime benefits (that is, when they add up the reduced criminal justice system costs plus how much people are willing to pay to reduce their odds of being victimized by crime), the results frequently show that anti-crime benefits are of similar order of magnitude to the future earnings benefits of pre-K.

Although I think anti-crime benefits are important, and appeal to some audiences, I think it is important to also emphasize positive benefits such as the broad increase in wages and prosperity due to broad access to quality pre-K. A focus on anti-crime benefits always runs the risk among some voters of stigmatizing the disadvantaged, which may reduce voter sympathy and support for educational and other programs to help the disadvantaged. This emotional reaction may not make rational sense, but there is a natural human reaction among some people to respond to threats of violence with solutions that rely on retribution and punishment.

However, from a rational analytic perspective, high-quality pre-K can be a cost-effective way of reducing the costs of crime. These anti-crime benefits of pre-K are why lobby groups such as “Fight Crime: Invest in Kids” have found broad support among police chiefs and sheriffs for crime prevention via early childhood education.

Posted in Uncategorized