Early education worth the costs

Written By ingesteruat Posted: 03/03/2014, 04:07pm

In the last 48 hours, two big names in Illinois politics — one the governor, the other the president of the United States — sang from the same hymnal.

Invest in early childhood education, they said. And invest big.

We couldn’t agree more.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama — for the second year in a row — called on Congress and the states to make high-quality preschool available to every 4-year-old.

Then Gov. Pat Quinn, in his State of the State address on Wednesday, laid out the broad contours of a “birth to five” initiative that would invest over the next five years in quality preschool, prenatal care and supports and services for parents.

Despite what critics say, research shows that a laser-like focus on a child’s early years is without question the best social investment we can make, particularly for low-income children.

Kids who complete a well-run preschool program graduate high school in greater numbers, earn more as young adults and are less likely to go to jail and need social services. Other interventions — remedial education, job training, jail — are distant seconds, not even in the race.

Every dollar spent on a quality preschool program yields $7 to society, according to a conservative estimate by University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate James Heckman.

This reality, long embraced by many educators, academics and advocates, is now decidedly mainstream. Governors across the land, many of them Republicans, have become preschool converts, many of them zealots. Some 30 states in the last year increased funding for early childhood education, according to the Education Commission of the States. Illinois, once a leader in preschool investment, cut funding by $80 million between 2009 and 2013. Funding held steady this year.

Despite the growing consensus on the value of quality preschool, there is a growing movement on the right to take the winds out of preschool’s sales. They dismiss the research on preschool’s efficacy as too old, too limited and based on expensive programs that are hard to replicate. Not worth the money, they say.

This is a narrow view. It ignores recent research on successful state programs as well as meta-analyses of dozens of studies going back decades, including evaluations of both large- and small-scale preschool programs.

The bottom line? Pre-K produces substantial long-term gains, particularly when programs are properly designed, even if there are some declines in effect right after children enter elementary school, says W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University

Critics point to a study released in 2012 of the federal government’s Head Start program — which is not what Obama or Quinn want to expand — as proof that preschool benefits fade over time and aren’t worth the substantial investment.

It is true that the Head Start results are discouraging, but the critics fail to note the limits of the study, that Head Start has since been reformed to make it more rigorous, and that Head Start has never been funded at the level to match the programs that have proved to be great successes, such as the Child-Parent Education Centers here in Chicago.

We know with great clarity what works and what doesn’t when it comes to early childhood education.

Are the good programs more expensive?

You bet.

Do they produce results that last a lifetime?

Without a doubt.

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