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Do early childhood programs for poor kids work?

Lately, we’re hearing a lot about the benefits of early childhood education — especially for poor kids.

In his state of the union speech Tuesday President Obama spotlighted the benefits of money spent on quality early childhood education: “…the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road...” and proposed working with states to make “high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” He is expected visit a pre-kindergarten class in Georgia today to promote the White House plan, which includes public preschool funding for any 4-year-old whose family income is 200 percent or less of the federal poverty plan.  In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed spending $44 million for early-learning scholarships for poor kids. 

But critics, including conservative columnist Katherine Kersten,  have their doubts that these kinds of programs are worth the money and question whether the economic returns — at the high end, $16 gained in the future for every $1 spent in early childhood — they promise are believable.

They point to what some call the “fade-out” factor: some research showing that high-quality programs do help kids early on in life but the academic benefits fade as the children continue their schooling. In other words, despite the boost of early learning programs, poor children face so many other significant barriers to success -- chaotic homes and neighborhoods, low-quality schools and one-parent, non-supportive families – that those early benefits don’t last.

Is there anything to the criticism?

Rob Grunewald, an economist and early childhood education expert at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, took on the question at a forum last week sponsored by the Achievement Gap Committee, a grassroots citizen group that’s been working for years to even the educational playing field between students of color and whites and between poor and middle-class kids. (Their second forum on early childhood education is Friday.)

Anyway you look at it, Grunewald argues, there is a “high rate of return” for investing in early childhood education. Research proves early learning is a strong foundation for lifetime success, he says.

Head Start

Grunewald concedes that a Head Start program analysis in 2012 demonstrated that gains there fell away, but counters that researchers using other methodologies showed kids in these programs grew up to graduate from high school at higher rates and were less likely to commit crimes.  

Grunewald adds that the federal government is also “re-bidding” lower-performing Head Start programs around the country — that is, searching for early childhood education providers with better academic track records.

Also, he says, kids who haven’t attended early learning programs can “catch-up” to their peers — at least in terms of reading and math scores — if good quality elementary schools shower them with educational resources.     

Still, Grunewald and other early childhood education proponents argue that early childhood programs provide lasting gains.

The early-learning edge persists in another measure: youngsters’ mastering of “executive function” skills, he says.

Life skills

These are learned skills which allow children to practice self control, pay attention, control their emotions, wait their turn, follow directions and listen to teachers. These are school-readiness skills that Grunewald and other child development experts say research shows remain with children into adulthood.

These are skills essential to life success, they argue.

Ask Grunewald to demonstrate his claims and he points to re-assessment or ongoing analysis of well-known early childhood education efforts — the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan, Chicago Child-Parent Centers and the Elmira Prenatal/Early Infancy Project — by respected academics, among them James Heckman of the University of Chicago and Arthur Reynolds, now at the University of Minnesota.

Their research “substantiated the long-term effects with high rates of returns,’’ Grunewald said.

By that he means the early scholars graduate from high school and college in greater numbers than those who didn’t have early childhood education. They are less likely to have problems with the law as juveniles. As adults, they are more likely to be employed and paying taxes, healthier, homeowners and financially solvent..

As for dollars-spent benefits?

For every $1 spent on early childhood programming, the return is from $4 to $16, Grunewald says, depending on the program.

In his speech Obama zeroed in on an average “more than $7” gained by heading off other social problems such as dropping out of high school, teen pregnancy and violent crime.

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Comments (6)

Missing piece to improve school readiness

While attention to children at risk for poor school performance through scholarship programs and high quality preschool exposure is surely of benefit, it leaves out the opportunity to make the greatest impact on children's readiness and capacity to learn. That piece is the attention needed to be given to early childhood adversity. Children who grow up in highly stressful environments (as shown in multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences studies) will not benefit from preschool programs as much as kids who grow up in safe and nurturing environments.
The research, some of which has been done at the University of Minnesota and published by Dr. Megan Gunnar and others, has confidently shown the negative impact on brain development that occurs when children are in unstable, highly stressed, non-nurturing homes. The brain does not mature in the manner that it should, leaving a child with learning difficulties, attention difficulties, emotional difficulties and more. If attention were to be paid to the earliest years of every child's life, through parenting coaching, establishing safe, stable, nurturing relationships, then programs such as school readiness efforts would be much more successful.
The return on investment is likely to be much greater if we invest in improving the environment around the child at the earliest possible time. The critical time to impact healthy brain development is from 0-3 years of age. Even better is including the time from conception to birth.
Let's direct our efforts - funding and programatic - to that which will give us the best return for our dollar, will provide longer-lasting benefits because of healthier brain development, and will lead to many other societal benefits. Healthier brains, marinated in nurturing environments will lead to reduction in alcohol and substance abuse, less family violence, improved health and more. All of these claims are backed up by the research around ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) and subsequent brain impact and development studies.

I wondered

whether one of the problems was that the environment in which the children found themselves during their K-12 years was responsible for the decline, at least in part. What you say would suggest it may be in individual cases.

No dad in the home

No early childhood program, including Head Start, all-day kindergarten and the preschool program Obama is touting, can make up for the lack of a father in the home. Leftists rarely mention fatherlessness, however, because 1.) changing culture is much more difficult than throwing taxpayer money at a new government program. 2 ) It's not politically correct to talk about since some cultures have more fatherlessness than others, and we wouldn't want them to think they have any responsibility in the matter.

Importance of Early Years

Every day at Connections For Children, I see the importance of focusing programs on the whole child and each child's family network. It is critical from infancy through the early years that children receive the support they need to develop the skills that ready them for school. Brain research shows that social, emotional, and cognitive development of our future workforce must begin long before kindergarten. Kids who have been in quality early child care / preschool envirnments are significantly more prepared for the challenges of school than those who are not.

Researchers at RAND concluded that a growing body of program evaluations shows that early childhood programs can generate government savings that more than repay their costs and produce returns to society that outpace most public and private investments.
(The Ecomonics of Early Childhood Policy)

Let's get behind the President's proposals and make sure that all low and moderate income working families have access to high-quality early child care and education.

Access to Quality Child Care

Every day at Connections For Children, we see the importance of focusing programs on the whole child and each child's family network. It is critical from infancy through the early years that children receive the support they need to develop the skills that ready them for school. Brain research shows that social, emotional, and cognitive development of our future workforce must begin long before kindergarten. Kids who have been in quality early child care / preschool environments are significantly more prepared for the challenges of school than those who are not.

Researchers at RAND concluded that a growing body of program evaluations shows that early childhood programs can generate government savings that more than repay their costs and produce returns to society that outpace most public and private investments. (The Economics of Early Childhood Policy)

Let's get behind the President's proposals and make sure that all low and moderate income working families have access to high-quality early child care and education.

poor children education support

RaFoundation in Mumbai, India, believes that each child needs a right environment to grow up - to have dreams and goals and to fight for them. In India so many kids grow in poor backgrounds and lack both motivation and good examples. See our site and what we do - help us touching poorest kids lives !