Early childhood education is an investment in human flourishing

As educators ponder the drawbacks of especially early elementary age children completing nearly a semester of school without the physical presence of their teachers because of the coronavirus pandemic, acknowledging the years children lose who start kindergarten ill prepared and never catch up is important. Because of the pandemic, putting food on the table for many parents of these at-risk children just got that much harder.

Early childhood education, from ages 0 to 5, is the best return for every dollar spent on education, according to University of Chicago Nobel laureate economist James Heckman. If children of these ages develop behavior patterns and skills to learn at grade level in kindergarten, their chances of succeeding throughout their school and later years are improved. “Skills beget skills,” as Heckman writes. Heckman used modeling to broaden the analysis applicability of two long-term experimental studies of high-quality preschool programs conducted in the 1960s and ‘70s: the Perry Preschool Program in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the North Carolina Abecedarian School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These studies followed through middle age the disadvantaged program participants, at risk cognitively and in families with low income and low education.

The Perry Preschool provided 2.5 hours of academic-year preschool daily for two years beginning at age 3. The Abecedarian School involved intensive year-round school, five days a week, for children starting at just 8 weeks old through age 5. Both programs featured weekly in-home visits, included healthy adult-child interactive language games, and rewarded personal initiative, healthy social relations, resolution of conflicts, and self-control. Curbing disruptive, aggressive behavior was integral to the success of these children into adulthood. Once they developed behaviors conducive to learning, they became motivated to excel. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of socializing children to learn early. Disobedience and disruptive and aggressive behaviors at ages 3 to 4 are indicators of potential misconduct and arrests during adolescence. The onset of criminality for life-course persistent, serious offenders is, tragically, ages 3 to 4.

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In both studies, children all but statistically doomed to fail flourished. IQs outpaced those of the control groups, high school performance was higher, and adult employment rates were higher. Perry Preschool female participants graduated from high schools at a 43% higher rate than the control group. Abecedarian graduates completed college at a rate four times higher than the control group. Broad, unexpected health benefits of the Abecedarian program included lower rates of childhood and adult obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease—credited to the two nutritious meals provided to participants daily—suggesting such programs could significantly reduce health care costs.

Heckman calculated returns of $7 to $10 annually for every dollar invested in the Perry Preschool Program and $13 annually for every dollar invested in the Abecedarian Program.

Investing public dollars in high-quality early childhood education for disadvantaged children as a priority could be the missing link in improving stagnating national and Idaho high school and college graduation rates, and significantly improve the earning power, and quality of life, of these children. Investing in human flourishing is ethical and economical.