One argument you sometimes hear against early childhood programs is that these programs won’t work unless we have good K-12 systems. Therefore, the argument goes, early childhood programs shouldn’t be vigorously pursued unless we can simultaneously pursue K-12 school reforms. This argument is incorrect.
It is true that the rate of return to early childhood programs may have some synergy with the quality of K-12 systems. At one hypothetical extreme, for example, if there were no K-12 education at all, it seems doubtful that early childhood programs would make much difference by themselves. Furthermore, as pointed out in a previous blog post, there is some research evidence that the rate of return to preschool programs may increase with the quality of the subsequent K-12 system.
But early childhood programs can still have quite high rates of return even if the K-12 system faces many difficult challenges. For example, some of the best research on high-quality preschool is on the Chicago Child-Parent Center program. This research has now followed participants and the comparison group until age 26. The estimates suggest a ratio of benefits to costs of over 10 to 1. These benefits include significant increases in adult earnings and reductions in crime.
These estimates are for a program in which the vast majority of the preschool graduates ended up attending Chicago Public Schools. With all due respect to Chicago Public Schools, I think it is fair to say that this school district has by no means overcome all its difficult challenges. If high-quality preschool can work when participants subsequently attend Chicago Public Schools, it seems likely that preschool can work when combined with a wide diversity of K-12 systems.
Public policy should pursue both large-scale expansion of high-quality early childhood programs and improvements in K-12 education. These two strategies complement each other. That is, pursuing both strategies together will have greater benefits than just pursuing one of these strategies.
However, we can get benefit-cost ratios exceeding one even if we implement just one of these strategies. Early childhood programs can have large net social benefits even if we are unable for political or financial reasons to also implement significant K-12 improvements.