February 13, 2013

State of the Union: “Let’s Do What Works” in Early Childhood

By: The Bridgespan Group
It was great to hear President Obama invoke the evidence of the cost-effectiveness of early childhood interventions last night in buttressing his call for making “high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

This appeal was one of the few that had law-makers on both sides of the aisle standing and applauding. The President wrapped it up by pointing to innovative universal preschool programs in the decidedly red states of Georgia and Oklahoma and declaring that, “we know this works, so let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”

I couldn’t agree more on the basic point – to help children escape inter-generational poverty we need to be investing in their futures earlier, well before they start kindergarten. Society gets much higher returns from programs that effectively meet the needs of pre-school children and boost their school readiness than it does on remedial programs delivered later, after kids have fallen off-track. The evidence assembled by Nobel Laureate James Heckman and others on this point is conclusive.
  We need to remember, however, that for the preschool programs to close school readiness gaps, they need to be of the highest quality in terms of the caliber and training of the instructors, the consistency and quality of the adult-child interactions, student-teacher ratios, parental involvement, and support services.

The handful of “treatment” preschool programs that have been used to establish the longer term impact of early childhood interventions on participating children relative to peers in a “control” group – e.g., the HighScope Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the Carolina Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers – embodied this level of quality.  But far too many preschool programs, especially those supporting low-income and minority youth, do not.

Advocates for early childhood programs routinely gloss over the quality imperative. In fact, as the Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst points out, there is not yet any conclusive evidence that the preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma now being elevated as models for the rest of the country are clearing the requisite quality threshold in ways that are having significant impact on the school readiness of participants.

To his credit, President Obama underscored the need for “high quality” programs three times in the nine sentences he devoted to this topic in his speech last night. By all means let’s shift more of society’s scarce resources to early childhood, where they can pay greater dividends. But let’s also recognize that doing what works is really hard work.

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