Some recent posts at this blog have been discussing the political problem that early childhood programs’ economic development benefits are mostly long-term, while political leaders often want results before the next election. So far, I have suggested two short-term benefits of early childhood programs: special education cost savings, and property value increases due to higher school test scores. Today I suggest a third possible short-term benefit: packaging early childhood programs with adult job training programs for the parents of the child participants.
This packaging would require some change in early childhood programs. They would have to be offered in conjunction with some job training program that did a good job of addressing the job training needs of parents.
For packaging early childhood programs with some other program “X” to be a real way to increase the short-term benefits of early childhood programs, there has to be some reason why the packaging makes sense. Otherwise, you could claim short-term benefits for early childhood programs by packaging the programs with ANY program that has great short-term benefits. But for these short-term benefits to be legitimately associated with early childhood programs, there have to be some gains from the package. For example, perhaps the packaging of program X with the early childhood program might somehow increase the returns to both programs because of some synergies between program X and the early childhood program.
Adult job training for parents of child participants in early childhood programs might have such synergies. Early childhood programs often provide some free child care for parents. This additional parent time could be used for job training. In addition, knowing their child is in a high-quality early childhood program may make parents more positive about investing in their own future.
Adult job training programs for parents may also increase the rate of return to early childhood programs. For example, research by Duncan, Kalil, and Ziol-Guest suggests that added family income when a child is in the age range from zero to five will have large effects in increasing that child’s adult earnings. The combination of better parental earnings and a good early childhood program may have more dramatic effects in increasing the former child participant’s earnings as an adult.
As James Heckman has argued, it is harder to run good adult job training programs than good early childhood programs. But adult job training programs can have good rates of return if they are focused on employers’ skill needs.
In chapter 7 of Investing in Kids, I do some simulations of the potential effects of combining pre-k programs with high-quality training programs for parents. The training programs are only assumed to be used by parents who are economically disadvantaged. I find that such training programs can potentially double or triple the magnitude of economic development benefits as a percent of total program costs after five years. For example, a universal pre-k program by itself will increase state residents’ earnings after 5 years by 16% of the program’s costs. A universal pre-k program, packaged with a high-quality community college training program, will increase state residents’ earnings after five years by 47% of the combined costs of the two programs.
This calculation does not allow for any synergy effects between the pre-k program and the adult job training. The short-term and long-term benefits of this package could be much greater if there are such synergies.
This packaging proposal could benefit from some pilot experiments. Can we effectively combine early childhood programs with job training programs for parents? Is the combined package more effective than running such programs separately? These are questions that could be answered with appropriately designed research studies.