Early childhood programs can work on a large-scale, without inordinate expense, and without other educational reforms

Linda Perlstein, a well-known education writer, provides a useful review of two recent books on educational improvements: David Kirp’s Kids First, and Wendy Kopp’s A Chance to Make History. The review focuses on the political tension between proposals to improve human capital development in American either by: (1) reforming K-12 education, or (2) changing services outside of K-12 education. Ms. Perlstein comes down on the side of combining both approaches. This position seems to me to be reasonable.

However, in the course of making her case, Ms. Perlstein makes a few statements that, in my opinion, go a bit overboard. These include the following:

“None of the [preschool and other programs praised by Kirp] have been attempted outside of small contained environments. Just as important, we don’t understand exactly why they are effective….[For example,] Perry is…the most heralded early –childhood program ever. But we don’t know which of its many elements – teacher quality, curriculum, leadership, home visits – contributed to its success.”

“Kirp points out that only a few Perry children “were lifted into the middle class.” Whether the effects of a good preschool endure depends on the education that follows…”

“…[B]outique, experimental programs inevitably sacrifice quality when brought to scale. And the quality [Kirp] rightly pushes for costs dearly…Educare, an enriching and intimate experience that lasts from infancy through preschool, does much better for children than Head Start, but for two and a half times more money per year.”

These arguments are exaggerated. First, preschool and other early childhood programs have been proven to work on a large-scale. Examples would include the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program, and statewide programs in Oklahoma, New Jersey, Michigan, South Carolina, West Virginia, and New Mexico.

Second, although the adult success of a child is affected by both early childhood programs and K-12 programs, early childhood programs can be effective even without improvements in K-12. The early childhood component of the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program was successful even without a complete transformation of the K-12 operations of Chicago Public Schools.

Third, although we don’t have a precise recipe for early childhood program success, we know some elements of what makes for program success. (See chapter 5 of my book Investing in Kids for the evidence on this topic.) For example, in preschool, smaller class sizes promote early childhood program success. Teachers, classroom environments, and curricula that allow for more interactions between lead teachers and small groups of students are more successful, particularly when these interactions encourage children to develop thinking skills. In the Nurse Family Partnership program, we know that the program works better when implemented by nurse home-visitors than by paraprofessionals.

Fourth, some successful early childhood programs have been successful even though the annual cost per child is more modest. For example, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has estimated that a high-quality half-day school-year preschool program can be achieved for an annual cost of about $4,500. (This is from IWPR’s publication Meaningful Investments in Pre-K: Estimating the Per-Child Costs of Quality Programs. The per-child cost is for a class-size of 17 students to 2 teachers, and teachers being paid similar compensation to public school teachers.) This cost is about half the annual cost of Head Start (Ludwig and Phillips, 2007).

On the whole, the evidence suggests that high-quality early childhood programs, and K-12 reform, can both improve adult outcomes. If reasonably well-designed, early childhood programs can be run at a large-scale with reliably high rates of return per dollar spent. K-12 reform is more difficult to implement, but can also have high rates of return for some investments. It is reasonable to suspect that simultaneously implementing both expanded high-quality early childhood programs, and well-designed K-12 reform, would have some synergistic benefits, although hard evidence of such synergy is lacking.

We should not have to choose between pursuing expanded early childhood programs or K-12 reform. Both are worth doing. But we should not assume that we need to simultaneously do everything in the most expensive way to have success. The human capital that undergirds a successful state economy can be improved through more modest and incremental reforms.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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