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Early Childhood Education: An Economist’s View

Is High Quality Early Education a Good Investment?

We have often heard educators say that it pays to invest in early childhood development, but what would an economist say about  early childhood education as a public investment? In his article, “The Economics of Inequality”, economist James Heckman explores that question, not just from the moral equal opportunity viewpoint, but also from the perspective of investment return and the factors that will be most effective in increasing the productivity of the American economy.

Inequality in childhood experiences and learning produce inequality in ability, achievement, health and adult success

“Traditionally, equity and efficiency are viewed as competing goals” says Heckman, what is fair is many times not efficient and what is economically efficient is often times not fair. So, it is noteworthy when you come across a policy that is both fair and efficient, and those policies need to be made the most of.  It turns out that investing in the early development of children who are disadvantaged is one of those policies. In fact, there is a large body of data from psychology, biology, economics, etc.  that shows, that not only is education equity a social justice imperative,”it is an economic imperative that has far-reaching implications for our nation”.

Children are born into circumstances that vary greatly and those circumstances have powerful effects on their lives.  Children born into disadvantaged circumstances are more likely to struggle as they make their way through life and are more likely to need things like special education, additional health care, financial support, etc.  All things that cost society additional dollars. The effects of these differing circumstances appear very early on and differences in language development and cognitive progress can often be measured before the 2nd birthday.

Cognition and Character Propel Success

Heckman and his colleagues note that while cognitive abilities are very important they are not as powerful as cognitive and social skills together. In short, he says, cognition and personality (character) drive success with character being a traditionally neglected factor. He argues it is these character skills that differentiate between the children who successfully complete school and those that do not.  It is this same collection of personality skills that predicts a variety of behaviors including, smoking, teenage pregnancies, wages, and many other aspects of social and economic life.

Character and learning skills have gotten more attention lately and Heckman is clearly one of those who believes that this attention is well-founded. His evidence shows that family characteristics have much more impact on test scores than the characteristics of schools. He believes that assisting parents in developing a family environment that will promote good social skills and behavior, along with a focus on language and literacy skills, will produce the best results and have a lasting effect on the child in adulthood.

Every Dollar Spent on High-Quality Early Childhood Education Produces a 7 to 10 Percent Annual Return on Investment

While supporting early childhood development cannot right every wrong, it can go a long way toward making up for the disadvantages in the environment of some children. Since the inequality begins before or at birth he believes that the best time to address those issues are with early childhood and parenting education.  Heckman mentions the Perry Preschool Project as an example of a program that combines family support and early child education and showed significant positive outcomes into adulthood.  He also talks about programs that were successful in promoting a better family environment, such as the Nurse Family Partnership.  This program provided home visits to high-risk first-time mothers for two years and has good long-term outcomes.  Such a program could be combined with early education to more intensely promote the cognitive side.  In the same way, high-quality early education programs could be include support for parenting skills and a positive family environment.

Heckman ends with a warning that it would be incorrect and short-sighted to assume that investments in programs like these only benefit the participants and not the public who pays for them.  If these investments are not made in the early years one can assume that the public will pay much more later on through lower earnings, unemployment, health care costs and even increased crime.  Whether one thinks it is the moral thing to do or whether it is the role of government, it makes economic sense to invest in increasing productivity; to spend less early on to prevent much greater costs later, and Heckman has the data to prove it.

You can see this article here:

Heckman, J.J. (2011). The economics of inequality: The value of early childhood education. American Educator, 35 (1),31-47

Dennis has been the Director of the the VT-HEC since it was founded in 2000. He spent 16 years at the VT-DOE as Director of teams with various names that included: special education, Title I, health and wellness and other family and education support services. Prior to that Dennis worked at the Barre Town School (VT) starting as a special educator and serving many years as the Director of Student Support Services. He also spent 6 years as a classroom teacher grades 5-8 in NJ.

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