One important issue is whether the rate of return to investing in high-quality early childhood programs varies with the quality of the subsequent K-12 system.
This is an important issue because if there are such synergies, such synergies potentially add to the benefits from investing in high-quality early childhood programs, or from investing in K-12 systems. We already know that high-quality pre-K can work, even in urban school districts such as Chicago, as exemplified by the Chicago Child-Parent Center program. But if high-quality pre-K has a larger effect when the K-12 system is better, then we can increase the benefits of investing in pre-K by simultaneously investing in K-12. Such synergies also imply that we can increase the benefits of investing in K-12 by simultaneously investing in early childhood programs. Synergies imply greater benefits than looking at each type of program separately.
In theory, there must be SOME synergies of this type. No one thinks that high-quality early childhood programs would have much of a return if we eliminated K-12 education. But the policy-relevant question is where the returns to spending a little more on early childhood programs go up if we spend a little more on K-12, and vice versa.
An important recent paper by Professor Rucker Johnson of UC-Berkeley provides some new evidence of such synergies. Professor Johnson’s paper looks at how the benefits of Head Start vary with per-pupil spending in the K-12 system. His baseline results find long-term benefits of Head Start for increasing educational attainment and male earnings. He finds that these benefits are greater when former Head Start students go to schools where per-pupil spending is higher from ages 12 to 17.
The notion of synergies lies behind such initiatives as the Harlem Children’s Zone, which seeks to intervene in children’s lives from birth through college. The promise of such comprehensive programs is that they can achieve higher returns than each separate program can do alone. If we do “whatever it takes” to help child development, from birth to adulthood, we may achieve more than running all our programs in separate silos.