Costs & Benefits of Early Childhood Education

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines early childhood as ages 0-8. During these years, children’s brains develop at a faster rate than at any other point in their lives. The foundations for all learning develop during this stage: cognitive skills, social skills, self-esteem, perception of the world, and moral outlook. It is critical that young children have access to high-quality early childhood education to become well-adjusted and capable adults.

Jane Waldfogel found during the research for her new book Too Many Children Left Behind (Russell Sage Foundation, 2015) that children of less-educated parents in the U.S. lag behind children of better-educated parents by more than a year in reading and math before they begin kindergarten!  Many of us have heard about the 30-million words vocabulary gap that children experience when they show up for kindergarten without any preschool education. Compared to other countries, this gap in reading and math is larger than any found in our peer countries such as the U.K., Canada, and Australia.

Waldfogel maintains that the research demonstrates that universal preschool benefits disadvantaged children more than other children. The U.K. provides universal preschool for 3- and 4-year olds, and even to disadvantaged 2-year olds. Both Canada and Australia also offer more support than the U.S. In addition, these peer countries also support young families through paid leave, income support, and universal PreK.

For more on the benefits of early childhood education, read “The Slow March Toward Universal Pre-K Just Made a Quick Step” on the MCH blog.

The Preschool to Prison Pipeline

The Center for American Progress reports that the point of entry for U.S. prisons is preschool, where the children under 5-years of age who are suspended or expelled are disproportionately African American. The facts are:

  • That African American children comprise 18% of preschool enrollment, yet account for 42% of preschool suspensions.
  • That non-Hispanic white preschoolers comprise 43% of enrollment but only 28% of suspensions.

Although it’s surprising to learn that so many children are suspended or expelled in preschool, it’s astounding to learn that the life direction of so many people is determined so early in life. Early childhood development is that important. The research shows that when young students are suspended or expelled, they are more likely to experience disciplinary action later in their school careers. They also are more likely to drop out of or fail high school and to be incarcerated in later life.

It’s clear that high-quality early childhood education has the potential to improve long-term life outcomes for underserved children.

Dr. Matthew Lynch, a highly-regarded education researcher, writes in The Edvocate that there are only 15 states and the District of Columbia that require kindergarten by law and six states that don’t require public schools to offer kindergarten. Dr. Lynch references a new foundation study that suggests that early childhood education can reduce Detroit’s crime rate and save Detroit and Michigan taxpayers millions of dollars. Detroit taxpayers would save an estimated $96,000 per child enrolled in quality preschool education and state taxpayers are estimated to save an additional $47,000 per child.

The amounts were calculated from adding savings from public assistance, childcare subsidies, special education, and the criminal justice system, which would provide the majority of the savings. Right now, only 4% of Michigan prisoners under the age of 20 graduated from high school. It would be interesting to see how Michigan compares to the other states with high-incarcerated populations.

American Indian K-12 students are even more at risk than African American students. They are at the greatest risk for dropping out of school or never attending college. The American Indian Fund reports that American Indians who earn a bachelor’s degree represent only 1% of degree earners.

As business people and educators, we can only begin to calculate the opportunity costs of this lost potential in our schools, businesses, and society.

Are We Measuring the Right Things?

Writing in The Hechinger Report about the long term benefits of early childhood education, James J. Heckman states that too many early childhood programs:
Measure only half the child, focusing on IQ and cognitive gains at the expense of social and emotional skills that are often stronger determinants of adult success. Conscientiousness, self-control, motivation, persistence and sociability have far greater influence on full time employment, lifetime wages, health, family and social outcomes than IQ and cognitive skills.

Heckman maintains that we must make the investment to nurture all children with more early learning that develops cognition and character. Research clearly supports that investment in quality early childhood education generates significant returns in better education, health, social outcomes, and economic productivity.

Next Steps

Many educators, researchers, and lawmakers are currently working on expanding the reach of quality early childhood education. You can read about the shift toward universal PreK here. And there are likely opportunities for education advocates to lobby for policy changes at the state level while groups like the NEA (National Education Association), advocate on the federal level for policy and funding.

The NEA’s position is that quality early childhood education is one of the best investments in our country that we can make. The personal, social, and economic benefits are clear from research into programs that have proven effective and tracked over the long term. Here are some of the recommendations of the NEA:

  • Free, publicly funded, quality kindergarten programs in all states.
  • Mandatory full-day kindergarten. Just 14 states require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten.
  • Optional free, publicly funded, quality “universal” pre-kindergarten programs for all three- and four-year-old children whose parents choose to enroll them. Three states are moving toward such a program – Georgia, New York and Oklahoma.
  • Federal funds to make pre-kindergarten programs available for all three- and four-year-old children from disadvantaged families. State and local governments should provide the additional funds necessary to make pre-kindergarten available for all three- and four-year old children.
  • Dedicated funding for early childhood education. Public schools should be the primary provider of pre-kindergarten programs, and additional funding must be allocated to finance them in the same manner as K-12 schools.

When we look at other countries and evaluate their social contracts with their citizens – particularly in the areas of education and family support – we are often too quick to judge them as socialists and discount their practices. However, there are clear and compelling social and economic reasons for the U.S. to invest in greater access to quality early childhood education.

We don’t need any more panels and we really don’t need any more research. There is a substantial body of research that already exists and is promoted by respected educators and researchers. The costs and the benefits of early childhood education are clear. Education companies are in a unique position to echo the call for quality early education and develop the curriculum materials to support it. Let’s make our voices heard.