In this tumultuous election year one wonders whether reasoned debate about education or other policies is still possible. That said, research has a role to play in helping policymakers make good decisions – if not before than after they are in office. So what do we know about the ability of early education to change children’s lives? At the moment, scholars are divided. One camp argues that pre-k doesn’t work, suggesting that it would be a mistake to expand it. Another camp believes that it is one of the most cost-effective things we could do to improve children’s lifetime prospects, especially if they come from disadvantaged homes.
The pre-k advocates cite several earlier demonstrations, such as the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs. These have been rigorously evaluated and found to improve children’s long-term success, including less use of special education, increases in high school graduation, reduced crime, and higher earnings. Participants in the Abecedarian program, for example, earned 60 percent more than controls by age 30. Mothers benefit as well since more of them are able to work. The Abecedarian project increased maternal earnings by $90,000 over the course of the mother’s career. Finally, by reducing crime, improving health, and decreasing the need for government assistance, these programs also reduce the burden on taxpayers. According to one estimate, the programs even increase GDP to the tune of $30 to $80 billion (in 2015 dollars) once the children have moved into and through their working lives. A careful summary of all this research can be found in this year’s Economic Report of the President. The Report notes, and I would emphasize, that no one study can do justice to this issue, and not every program has been successful, but the weight of the evidence points strongly to the overall success of high-quality programs. This includes not just the small, very intensive model programs, but importantly the large, publically-funded pre-school programs such as those in Boston, Tulsa, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. Some estimates put the ratio of benefits to costs at $7 to $1. Very few investments promise such a large return. Pre-k advocates admit that any gains in IQ may fade but that boosts to nonacademic skills such as self-control, motivation, and planning have long-term effects that have been documented in studies of siblings exposed to differing amounts of early education.
The pre-k critics point to findings from rigorous evaluations of the national Head Start program and of a state-wide program in Tennessee. These studies found that any gains from pre-k at the end of the program had faded by the time the children were in elementary school. They argue that the positive results from earlier model programs, such as Perry and Abecedarian, may have been the result of their small scale, their intensity, and the fact that the children involved had few alternative sources of care or early education. Children with more than adequate home environments or good substitute child care do not benefit as much, or at all, from participating in a pre-k program. In my view, this is an argument for targeted programs or for a universal program with a sliding scale fee for those who participate. In the meantime, it is too early to know what the longer-term effects of current programs will be. Despite their current popularity among scholars, one big problem with randomized controlled trials (RCTs) is that it takes a generation to get the answers you need. And, as is the case with Perry and Abecedarian, by the time you get them, they may no longer be relevant to contemporary environments in which mothers are better educated and more children have access to out-of-home care.
In the end, you can’t make public policy with RCTs alone. We need to incorporate lessons from neuroscience about the critical changes to the brain that occur in early childhood and the insights of specialists in child development. We need to consider what happens to non-cognitive skills over the longer term. We need to worry about the plight of working mothers, especially single parents, who cannot work without some form of out-of-home care. Providing that care on the cheap may turn out to be penny wise and pound foolish. (A universal child care program in Quebec funded at $5 a day led to worse behavior among the kids in the program.) Of course we need to continuously improve the effectiveness of pre-k through ongoing evaluation. That means weeding out ineffective programs along with improving curriculum, teacher preparation and pay, and better follow-up in the early grades. Good quality pre-k works; bad-quality does not. For the most disadvantaged children, it may require intervening much earlier than age 3 or 4 as the Abecedarian program did — with strikingly good results.
Our society is coming apart. Scholars from AEI’s Charles Murray to Harvard’s Robert Putnam agree on that point. Anything that can improve the lives of the next generation should command our attention. The evidence will never be air-tight. But once one adds it all up, investing in high quality pre-k looks like a good bet to me.
Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in Real Clear Markets.