The power of local coalitions: Kalamazoo’s progress on pre-K

For my speech on Monday February 23rd to the Kalamazoo Rotary Club, I looked more in-depth at state and local statistics on pre-K enrollment. Due to expanded state funding, the percentage of Michigan 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K has increased from 21% in the 2012-13 school year to 33% in the 2014-15 school year. Kalamazoo County has done much better, with the county’s percentage of 4-year olds in state and local funded pre-K increasing from 22% in the 2012-13 school year to 52% in the 2014-15 school year. This is still below leading states such as Oklahoma, which has 74% of all four-year olds in state-funded pre-K, but is a lot of progress in two years.

Why has Kalamazoo County been more successful? I think the success has been due to a well-designed local coalition that has helped develop more quality pre-K programs and has more aggressively done outreach to make families more aware of affordable pre-K options. This coalition includes: KRESA (the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency, the intermediate school district), which administers Head Start and the state’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), the state pre-K program, and also supports the local Great Start Collaborative, which helps coordinate local efforts; Kalamazoo County Ready 4s, a local non-profit group that seeks to promote high-quality universal pre-K in Kalamazoo County through tuition scholarships, supplements to the state funds per pre-K slot, and training for local pre-K providers and teachers (I serve on the board of KC Ready 4s); a variety of public and private pre-K providers.

Because of this coalition, Kalamazoo County has been more aggressive in seeking the available state funds through the GSRP program and in being able to use those funds. In contrast, other communities around the state have been forced to return unused funds to the state. But in Kalamazoo County, with the training from KC Ready 4s and support from KRESA, more local pre-K providers are high-quality programs that are eligible for state funding. KC Ready4s provides tuition supplements to the GSRP funds to some pre-K providers, which makes these programs better able to participate in GSRP. With a coordinated effort from the entire coalition, including some door-to-door recruitment through the local community organizing group ISAAC in under-served neighborhoods, more parents are aware of their pre-K opportunities. Finally, KC Ready 4s directly provides sole financial support for pre-K for over 3% of all 4-year olds in Kalamazoo County who do not receive Head Start or GSRP funding.

I think this has broader lessons for pre-K around the country. Local implementation matters. Effective pre-K not only requires funding, but a local infrastructure to help train and develop providers and promote availability of the programs to parents. This seems to have been successfully done in other states, for example in North Carolina’s Smart Start and More at Four programs. And at least in Kalamazoo County, this local coalition seems to have been effective in multiplying the effects of the state pre-K funding.

There are still many challenges to pre-K’s future in Kalamazoo County and Michigan in general. These challenges include, perhaps most importantly, that the real inflation-adjusted funding per child for a half-day slot of $3,775 is still about 20% below the $4,518 funding per child (2015 dollars) for a half-day slot that Michigan provided in the 1990-2000 period (source: author’s calculations using the Consumer Price Index, and per-slot funding data from Michigan). As in other areas of Michigan education funding, Michigan’s struggling economy and deliberate political choices have led to nominal dollars for educational programs falling well behind inflation. The consequence of such low funding is that local pre-K programs must struggle to afford to pay pre-K teachers enough to consistently attract and retain high-quality teachers. Public school pre-K programs must choose to cross-subsidize pre-K with funds diverted from scarce K-12 allocations, and private pre-K programs must seek to raise supplementary funds from such sources as KC Ready 4s. This situation is not sustainable long-term without some more reliable sources of adequate pre-K funding.

This Michigan challenge is also a national challenge. Even as states begin to rebuild pre-K funding as the U.S. continues recovering from the Great Recession, a key issue is: are states as interested in providing the needed funding per pre-K slot to ensure quality as they are in simply expanding the number of pre-K slots? There is always the temptation to try to get large numbers for pre-K slots provided, with less concern about whether the funding is adequate to consistently support pre-K quality.  But what is ultimately important is access to quality pre-K programs, not simply access.

For some local news coverage of my February 23 speech, see the article by Julie Mack in the Kalamazoo Gazette. The complete speech and PowerPoint are at the Upjohn Institute website. The bulk of the speech and PowerPoint did NOT focus specifically on Kalamazoo. Rather, the speech provided some information about why the Head Start experiment does not show that pre-K effects fade in adulthood, and why pre-K education is a particularly attractive economic investment in skills development.

Posted in Early childhood program design issues

Recent “natural experiment” evidence for Head Start’s long-run effectiveness

A recently published paper on Head Start, by Pedro Carneiro and Rita Ginja, presents evidence that Head Start has sizable long-run behavioral benefits, compared to no preschool, even though cognitive impacts fade.

The paper’s methodology is not a random assignment experiment, but rather relies on a natural experiment. Head Start uses an income cutoff for eligibility. If we compare children who just make the income cut-off for eligibility for Head Start, versus children who just miss the cut-off, we are comparing children who are likely very similar in unobserved as well as observed characteristics. Therefore, it is more plausible that any future changes in outcomes for these children are due to the child’s participation in Head Start.

Carneiro and Ginja in this paper focus on outcomes for males participating in Head Start, because it turns out that their estimation strategy works well for males but not females. Specifically, they find that close to the income cutoff for Head Start, there is a big jump in Head Start participation among males as income changes from just above to just below the cut-off, whereas there is no abrupt jump for females. This may be due to programs using some allowed exceptions to income rules to admit some female children to Head Start who are slightly above the income cutoff.

Comparing males just below or just above the Head Start eligibility cutoff at age 4, Carneiro and Ginja find that males who are just under the income cutoff, versus males who are just above, show reduced obesity, improved health and improved behavior at ages 12-13, reduced obesity and depression at ages 16-17, and reduced arrests and convictions and reduced “idleness” (being neither employed nor in school) at ages 20-21. In contrast, there are no signs of statistically or substantively large improvements in test scores at ages 12-13.

These effects are large enough that it seems likely that Head Start would pass a benefit-cost test simply based on the health improvements and crime reductions. Carneiro and Ginja estimate a benefit-cost ratio of 9 to 1.

The findings are consistent with the notion that Head Start, and perhaps other pre-K programs, have much of their long-term benefits by improving behavior, not necessarily by improving scores on standardized IQ tests. “Soft skills” matter a lot to long-run success, and pre-K programs such as Head Start can improve these skills.

Another interesting study finding is that Head Start’s effects appear to be greater for students participating in Head Start in the 1980s than for students participating in the 1990s. As Carneiro and Ginja note in an appendix, this difference may be occurring because of changes in the alternatives to Head Start. Carneiro and Ginja find evidence that in the past, increased Head Start participation came at the expense of reductions in informal child care arrangements, whereas more recently increased Head Start participation reduces participation in other preschools. Therefore, the reduction in Head Start effects in recent years does not necessarily mean preschool does not work; it means that Head Start is not clearly better in outcomes than other preschools.

Carneiro and Ginja’s study may help reconcile the results of the Head Start random assignment experiment with other studies finding long-run effects of Head Start. The studies finding long-run effects of Head Start focus on more behavioral outcomes such as work and educational attainment, whereas the random assignment Head Start experiment focused more on test scores. Furthermore, the studies finding long-run effects of Head Start are for children participating in Head Start in the 1980s or earlier, whereas the Head Start random assignment study began in 2002. The impacts we find for Head Start may be sensitive to what preschool alternatives we’re comparing the program with, and with whether we focus on long-run behavioral change or shorter-run effects on standardized tests.

Posted in Uncategorized

New Duke study of special education cost savings due to North Carolina’s Smart Start and More at Four programs

A newly published study by three well known researchers at Duke (Clara Muschkin, Helen Ladd, and Ken Dodge) finds that North Carolina’s early childhood programs significantly reduce special education placements at grade 3.

The programs examined are More at Four, which funded preschool at age 4, and Smart Start, which funded a variety of child care services and early education quality improvements from birth to age 5. The Duke study found that at typical funding levels, More at Four reduces special education placements at third grade by about one-third, and Smart Start reduces third grade special education placements by about 10%. These effects are large because special education placements are so expensive.

The study builds on previous work by Duke researchers examining the effects of North Carolina’s early education programs on student test scores. This research relies on a natural experiment: North Carolina’s early childhood education programs were rolled out to different North Carolina counties at different times and with different per-child funding levels and trends over time.

The research essentially examines how differential county trends in per-child funding are associated with different county trends in test scores and special education placements.  The rationale is that it seems plausible that such correlations reflect true causal effects. Why would test scores increase in a county, and special education placements decline, the appropriate number of years after early education funding increased, other than a true causal effect of the funding increase? Perhaps there are some other unobserved changes in the county that are responsible, but this seems less likely than the hypothesis that the early education funding is driving the improvements.

Of particular interest is how the program costs compare with the likely special education cost savings. This is of interest because one political problem with early childhood programs is how to get political support for funding these programs when many of the benefits, such as increased adult earnings, and reduced adult crime, are very long-term, and many of these long-term benefits do not necessarily accrue to government budgets. From a narrow government finance standpoint, and from the perspective of politicians facing short-term budget issues, early childhood education investments would be more attractive if they could offer shorter-term budget savings.

If one assumes that the special education cost savings found at third grade persist throughout K-12, then these results imply that the present value of special education cost savings exceed the present value of program costs, for both More at Four and Smart Start. For More at Four, the special education cost savings are 346% of the program costs. For Smart Start, the special education cost savings are 102% of the program costs.

(Note on methodology: I assumed the dollar cost savings estimated in Muschkin et al were the same for all 13 years from kindergarten through 12th grade, and used their dollar figures for annual costs of the two programs. All figures were discounted using a 3% real discount rate to a present value as of age 5 (kindergarten). )

These results should be encouraging to efforts around the country, most notably in Utah, to set up innovative financing plans under which special education cost savings are used to finance preschool programs. The previous research on the magnitude of special education cost savings versus preschool program costs is mixed, with some studies suggesting that special education cost savings will be more than double program costs, while other studies suggest special education cost savings will be about half of program costs.

The results should also be encouraging to advocates of comprehensive programs to improve child care birth to age 5. Child care is expensive, so it is hard for child care policies to show quite as high a benefit-cost ratio as less intense interventions such as pre-K. But the latest results from Smart Start suggest that even if child care improvements are expensive, they may cover their fiscal costs within the child’s K-12 educational career.

A final note on this study. The researchers found that Smart Start had much greater benefits for more disadvantaged children, from families with less maternal education, whereas the benefits of the More at Four program did not vary significantly with maternal education.  This is consistent with other research that finds that preschool tends to have more universal benefits, whereas child care and parenting initiatives tend to have more income-focused benefits. On the one hand, this makes preschool more politically attractive to more voters. On the other hand, if we want to make dramatic differences to the problems the U.S. faces with increased income inequality, addressing child care and parenting should be an important part of our national economic strategy.

Posted in Uncategorized

Research consensus for early childhood education backed in letter by over 500 researchers

A letter was released today (November 12, 2014), signed by over 500 researchers and academics, that expresses the strong research consensus that supports investment in high-quality early childhood education.

I am honored to be among this group of signatories, which includes many well-known researchers. The letter can be found at the NIEER website.  Here is the full list of the over 500 signatories.

The letter reflects the broad range of research consensus that backs the effectiveness of early childhood education. As the letter says, research shows that quality early childhood education not only improves academic achievement outcomes, but also improves future adult outcomes, for example by increasing earnings and reducing crime. Early childhood education programs can be and have been successfully run at a large scale. And these programs not only help low-income children, but also can improve outcomes for working-class and middle-class children.

For those who want more information and evidence, the letter draws in part on a longer report from 2013, Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education . Another recent report (January 2014)  that helps summarize the research is from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy: Early Childhood Education for Low-Income Students: A Review of the Evidence and Benefit-Cost Analysis.

In addition, my new book (September 2014), From Preschool to Prosperity: The Economic Payoff to Early Childhood Education, also provides a summary of the research evidence in an accessible book that is meant to be readable in less than two hours. The book is available free as a pdf at the Upjohn Institute, at $0.99 on Kindle or Nook, and is also available as a paperback at Amazon or at the Upjohn Institute.  In Kalamazoo, the book can be purchased at Bookbug or at Kazoo Books. Gordon Evans of WMUK, the local public radio station, broadcast an interview with me about the book on November 10. Alyssa Haywoode of Eye on Early Education published an interview with me about the book on September 23. Finally, Conor Williams of the New America Foundation reviewed the book.

If you want to hear what the critics of this research say, this recent blog post provides a somewhat more technical discussion that  contrasts my view of the research evidence versus the views of Russ Whitehurst, one of the prominent critics of the research evidence for early childhood education. But, as the letter released today shows, the consensus is that the weight of the evidence supports greater evidence in high-quality early childhood education. Critics are forced to overlook a great deal of good evidence for the effectiveness of these programs, and over-stress a few flawed studies to the contrary. As the letter released today states:

Critics of greater investment ignore the full body of evidence. Critics often cite data out of context, cherry-picking findings that highlight minimal effects within the larger findings of overall benefits. In addition, they claim the need to wait for larger-scale studies over many years to prove long-term effectiveness, knowing full well that such experiments are not possible without significant government investment and decades of research. Existing research findings are sufficient to warrant greater investment in quality programs now. Additional investments in research are essential and will be most productive if used to monitor quality and guide ongoing improvement of programs and systems.”

The press release is below:

Press release from First Five Years Fund and National Institute for Early Education Research, released November 12, 2014:

Open Letter from Academics, Researchers: Increase Investments in High-Quality Early Childhood Education

Jeffrey Sachs, Linda Darling-Hammond, Susan Neuman, W. Steven Barnett among signatories to endorse state and federal investments in birth to five initiatives

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A group of more than 500 researchers and academics from around the country released an open letter today urging policymakers on all levels of government to support greater investments in high-quality early childhood education. The letter, released in conjunction with the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) and the First Five Years Fund (FFYF), includes signatories such as Jeffrey Sachs, Linda Darling-Hammond, T. Berry Brazelton, Barbara Bowman, David Kirp and Steven Barnett.

The letter crystallizes an overwhelming body of research in human development, psychology, education, and economics, which details how high-quality early childhood education programs for children from birth to age five are one of the best economic bets we can make. Research shows that investing in these early years, particularly on behalf of disadvantaged children, produces impressive social and economic returns. Some of our country’s costliest fiscal challenges – grade repetition, special education, high school dropout, crime, and health costs – all are shown to be impacted significantly by evidence-based investments in early education. Quality early education can be brought to scale, with examples available across the country.

Within the past year, states as diverse as Alabama, Maine, Michigan, New York and Washington have made early childhood education a political priority. Governors, mayors, CEOs and law enforcement officials are coalescing around early childhood education as a trusted path to improving education, family, and economic outcomes. But this isn’t an excuse for the federal government to sit on the sidelines. Federal investment is vital to help ensure childcare, home visiting, Head Start and other programs have the necessary resources to provide high quality services consistent with the science of early learning.

“Too many American children do not receive the education and support in their first five years that science tells us contributes to life success,” said W. Steven Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). State funding for pre-k increased by $30.6 million in 2012-2013—a step in the right direction, but a small one, according to NIEER’s 2013 State Preschool Yearbook. “Policymakers across the political spectrum have put their support behind early education programs, so it’s time to see funding increases that reflect that support,” according to Barnett.

Fortunately, momentum is building. This year alone, Congress launched a $250 million Preschool Development Grants competition which has generated interest from 35 states, extended the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, and allocated $1.4 billion in early childhood education funding.

A recent national poll by the bipartisan team of Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research for the First Five Years Fund confirms that voters also view greater investment in early childhood education as a critical issue for states and the nation. Seventy-one percent of voters support greater federal investments and 64 percent say our political leaders should be doing more to ensure that children start kindergarten with the knowledge and skills to do their best.

“Today’s letter reinforces the broad base of consensus in the academic and research community behind early childhood education as a tangible tool to solving a number of social and economic problems,” said Barnett. “This is one of the soundest choices policy leaders can make.”

Among the signatories of the open letter are:
 Jeffrey Sachs, Earth Institute, Columbia University
 Linda Darling-Hammond, Graduate School of Education, Stanford University
 Barbara Bowman, Erikson Institute
 David Kirp, Goldman School of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley
 Irwin Redlener, National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Columbia University
 Jack P. Shonkoff, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University
 Timothy Bartik, Senior Economist, Upjohn Institute for Employment Research
 Deborah Phillips, Department of Psychology, Georgetown University
 W. Steven Barnett, National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers
 Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University
The First Five Years Fund ( helps America achieve better results in education, health and economic productivity through investments in quality early childhood education programs for disadvantaged children. FFYF provides knowledge, data, and advocacy – persuading federal policymakers to make investments in the first five years of a child’s life that create greater returns for all.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (, a unit of the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, supports early childhood education policy by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research.

Posted in Early childhood programs

What does the evidence show on preschool?

A recent article by Professor David Armor repeats many of the common arguments made by researchers opposed to current proposals for expanding preschool.  The article was published online by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

The article’s arguments have been frequently made by opponents of universal preschool. In particular, these arguments are similar to those made by Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, who has previously co-authored a blog post on preschool research with Professor Armor.

The argument in brief is as follows. First, these critics admit that the Perry and Abecedarian experiments provide evidence for the long-term benefits of these preschool programs, but this evidence is argued to be irrelevant to current preschool proposals. Second, the many “regression discontinuity” studies that show strong effects of many current preschool programs on kindergarten entrance test scores are argued to be biased.  Third, the Head Start and Tennessee experiments are argued to show that the effects of current preschool programs are likely to quickly fade.

I have already responded to these arguments in the past. For a more academic take on the research evidence, see my blog post responding to Whitehurst’s weighting of the research evidence, and explaining how I weight the evidence. For a more accessible discussion aimed at a broad audience, see chapter 4 of my new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, and also endnote 21 in that book.

Let me emphasize here just a few points.

First, regarding the Perry and Abecedarian experiments, these critics argue that the strong benefits of these programs are irrelevant to the current policy debate because the Perry and Abecedarian programs are more expensive per child than most current preschool programs. But why do these critics mainly use this argument as a reason to oppose current preschool programs?  If the critics accept that these more expensive preschool programs have high benefit-cost ratios, they should be arguing for spending more per child on highly-intensive preschool programs. Rather than an argument for doing nothing, the Perry and Abecedarian programs provide an argument for doing more.

Furthermore, the argument for today’s preschool programs is not that they will fully replicate the very large benefits of the Perry and Abecedarian programs. Rather, the argument is that at a lesser cost, current preschool programs will still provide a high benefit-cost ratio. As reviewed in my new book, Perry is estimated to increase adult earnings by 19% and the Abecedarian program by 26%. Most current preschool programs are estimated to increase adult earnings by 5 or 10%, but at a much lower cost. A full-day program with similar effectiveness to Tulsa’s preschool program is estimated to increase adult earnings by around 10%, but at a sufficiently lower cost that its benefit-cost ratio is somewhat higher than that of the Abecedarian program (see chapter 3 of my new book).

Second, regarding the “regression discontinuity design” (RDD) studies, Armor and other critics argue that these studies are biased by attrition from the treatment group. “Regression discontinuity” studies look at test scores at pre-K entrance, and at kindergarten entrance for children who attended pre-K the previous year. The studies than estimate how much of the increase in test scores for the latter group is due to the one year of aging, and how much is due to the pre-K program. This separation is done by looking at how test scores vary with age in both the pre-K entrant group and the kindergarten entrant group.

Armor’s point is that the “treatment group” of kindergarten entrants may miss some children who dropped out of preschool or who left the school district. This point is true. Armor argues that the omitted children will have lower test scores, which, if true, would bias the RDD results towards finding larger effects of pre-K. This argument, however, is by no means obvious. For example, in these studies of urban school districts, more upwardly mobile families who move to the suburbs are less likely to be in the kindergarten entrant group, and these children would probably tend to have above average test scores.

But Armor’s argument of bias in RDD estimates overlooks two important points. One point is that even when we redo regression discontinuity studies and only include children observed at both pre-K entrance and kindergarten entrance, we get similar estimated effects. This is shown in a study I did of a Kalamazoo pre-K program. Although attrition in principle might bias RDD estimates of preschool’s benefits, in practice attrition doesn’t seem to make much difference.

A second point is that the observed pattern of results in RDD studies of pre-K is inconsistent with attrition bias explaining these results. In Tulsa, the estimated RDD effects on test scores imply that half-day pre-K increases adult earnings by about 6%, and that full-day pre-K increases adult earnings by about 10%. (See p. 48 of my new book.)This pattern of effects is quite reasonable – one would expect full-day pre-K to have larger effects than half-day pre-K, but perhaps not twice as high effects due to some diminishing returns. But there is no reason that attrition bias should result in this pattern of effects. Why would attrition bias lead to a higher positive bias for full-day pre-K students than for half-day pre-K students?  There is no reason for this pattern to occur for attrition bias.

Third, Armor argues that the Head Start results imply that Head Start has no lasting effects compared to no preschool at all. This argument is based on a reanalysis of the Head Start results in a dissertation by Peter Bernardy, a former student of Armor’s. I’ve read Dr. Bernardy’s dissertation. In the dissertation, he does a non-experimental match of Head Start participants in the Head Start treatment group to children in the control group who attended no preschool.

Although Dr. Bernardy’s results are interesting, they are potentially subject to serious selection bias. As researchers know, the problem in evaluating preschool, or any educational or social intervention, is that there are unobserved pre-existing differences between program participants and non-participants that we can’t control for, because by definition we don’t observe these differences. Preschool families may be either more ambitious or needier than non-preschool families in ways we don’t observe, which will bias comparisons of preschool participants versus non-participants. The post-preschool differences between the two groups could be due to preschool, or could be due to the pre-existing differences.

The ideal solution to this selection bias problem is a randomized control trial. This is the “gold standard” for overcoming selection bias. If preschool participants are selected randomly, and the sample size is large enough, we have a reasonable expectation that the preschool participants and non-participants will be effectively the same on average in unobserved pre-existing characteristics.

Another good solution to the selection bias problem is some “natural experiment”, where preschool access varies with some factor that is arguably unrelated to unobserved characteristics. These natural experiments provide a “silver standard” for dealing with selection bias. For example, the RDD studies of preschool are really natural experiments, because the timing of pre-K access varies with age. Both the treatment group (kindergarten entrants who were in pre-K the previous year), and the control group (pre-K entrants) were similarly selected into preschool.

A less satisfactory solution to the problem of selection bias due to unobserved characteristics is to statistically control for observed characteristics. This is a “bronze standard” for dealing with selection bias. We may hope that by controlling for observed characteristics, we may also reduce differences in unobserved characteristics. But it is impossible to tell if this is so, and in practice, we know from many previous studies that “bronze standard” studies of program effectiveness have often proved misleading.

As Dr. Bernardy appropriately acknowledges in his dissertation, his estimates of the effects of Head Start vs. no-preschool may be biased by unobserved family and child characteristics.   (p. 89-90:  “It should be acknowledged that the omission of unobserved characteristics could lead to bias in the resulting estimation. For instance, varying levels of motivation among children’s parents that is not captured by the included covariates could yield a biased result.”) What direction or size might this bias have? We have no idea.

Professor Armor, along with Dr. Whitehurst and other critics of preschool, usually puts a heavy emphasis on “gold standard” results from randomized control trials. It is therefore odd that so much emphasis is placed in Professor Armor’s paper on Head Start results that are not based on a random experiment, or even on a natural experiment.

What is a non-researcher to make of all this debate over what studies to believe? A natural reaction is to say “we just don’t know anything”. This then argues for the need for more research before going forward with any ambitious preschool plan.

But what should be kept in mind is that Professor Armor and Dr. Whitehurst are distinctly in the minority of researchers in their interpretation of the overall research evidence. The research consensus is much more represented by a report in 2013 by ten of the most distinguished early childhood researchers, Investing in our future: The evidence base on preschool education. This research consensus finds, quoting from the main conclusions of the Executive Summary, that:

“Large-scale public preschool programs can have substantial impacts on children’s early learning….Quality preschool education is a profitable investment… Quality preschool education can benefit middle-class children as well as disadvantaged children… Long-term benefits occur despite convergence of test scores.”

Marketing doubt is easier than moving forward. But what must be always kept in mind is that there are costs not only to moving forward, but also to doing nothing. Children are only age 4 once. If we fail to provide preschool that could positively affect a child’s life course, that opportunity is lost forever. We can of course intervene later, but the main consensus conclusion from the early childhood research literature is that early interventions at ages 3 and 4 can have a particularly high benefit-cost ratio and can reach more children.

There are risks to moving forward. There are risks to doing nothing. Overall, the research consensus is that high-quality preschool has much higher benefits than costs. These benefits occur not only for the participating children and families, but for our overall economy and society.

Posted in Early childhood programs | 2 Comments

Early childhood education is a good we know how to do

In my new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, I put early childhood education in the context of other efforts to increase high-wage employment. Early childhood education is by no means the only policy needed as part of a comprehensive strategy to advance broader economic opportunity.

Early childhood education is but one strategy to improve the quality of the American labor supply. Improving the quality of the American labor supply helps increase wages by creating an economic environment in which firms can readily find skilled labor and therefore are able to implement new technologies and improve productivity. In addition to improving ECE, policymakers need to improve the quality of K-12 education, and to make postsecondary education more financially easy to access.

Labor demand policies are also needed to directly encourage businesses to expand the number of high-wage jobs. Such policies could include manufacturing extension services, which help small and medium sized manufacturers to improve their productivity and competitiveness. Customized job training programs can help encourage businesses to expand high-wage jobs by directly providing the needed skills for specific jobs. Tax policies that reward job creation can also be used to encourage the expansion of high-wage jobs.

However, of all these various labor supply and demand policies, early childhood education probably has the most extensive and rigorous evidence for its effectiveness at a large scale. Our knowledge is not perfect, but is more than adequate to justify large scale investment. Early childhood education represents a good we know how to do.

Posted in Economic development

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