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New study: High-quality preschool for poor kids under 3 would eliminate achievement gap

Labor economist Aaron Sojourner
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
Labor economist Aaron Sojourner: “There is compelling experimental and quasi-experimental evidence that early life conditions have large, lasting impacts on life course.”

Talk about your cost-benefit analysis: A newly published study co-authored by a University of Minnesota labor economist predicts that providing full-time, high-quality preschool to impoverished children under the age of 3 could entirely eliminate the achievement gap.

There’s more: The study, published in the Journal of Human Resources, also found that the impact of very early intervention was less likely to fade as the children aged — even if they did not stay in quality care after age 3.

“By age 3, kids from low-income families were doing as well as those from high-income families,” said Aaron Sojourner, a professor of labor economics at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and one of the study’s authors. “So you close the gap by age 3.”

Like other economists who study human capital, Sojourner is well aware that by the time people are 18, the factors that determine how they are likely to fare in the job market — and by extension the contribution to the economy that can be expected of them — largely have been determined.

“Status at 18 can be well predicted by status at age 5, so we keep going back earlier,” said Sojourner. “And there is compelling experimental and quasi-experimental evidence that early life conditions have large, lasting impacts on life course.”

Sojourner and co-author Greg Duncan, of the University of California-Irvine, re-examined data gleaned from the Infant Health and Development Program (IHDP), a randomized clinical trial that examined the impact quality care had on outcomes for low-birth-weight babies.

The clinical trial involved babies born in the 1980s, but its design made its data worth revisiting for Sojourner and Duncan. Because it enrolled children throughout the country and regardless of income status, they could look at representative demographic samples.

Second, because a control group got no services, as in other high-quality, random clinical trials, the researchers can state with confidence that the better results seen in the children enrolled in the program were the result of the home visits and preschool.

By age 3, children from low-income families are typically one standard deviation behind their wealthier peers on IQ tests. The 1,000 children in the study who got the very early intervention had the same cognitive abilities as middle- and upper-income kids at age 3.

Some past research has suggested that strides made by children in quality care fades if they do not continue to receive intensive interventions after leaving preschool, something detractors have used to argue against investing tax dollars in the expensive programs. The new study found that very early intervention’s cognitive gains persisted.

“At 5, two years after program end and after two years of low-income families left to their own devices, about three-fourths of the gap, or 72 percent, is closed,” said Sojourner.

“That is, the low-income kids who were treated — who were randomly assigned to eligibility for this two years of free full-day care — end up at kindergarten entry looking more like kids from higher-income families than they look like kids from lower-income families.”

At age 8, five years after the program ended, some three-fifths of the IQ and math achievement gap remained closed. And while there wasn’t a high enough response rate to include data about participants at age 18, Sojourner said the information gathered was quite similar to that of the 8-year-olds.

“Whatever happens during those first three years has an outsized impact,” said Sojourner. “So if you want to raise adult productivity, spend your next dollar there, in these early years.”

Like other economists who have examined the economics of education, he’s quick to point out that spending on quality is what makes it such a good investment.

Adjusted for inflation, the program cost some $48,000 per child, the study notes. If children with developmental disabilities and transportation were excluded that would drop to $29,000, which is about the cost of quality child care in the Twin Cities metro area.

Those numbers are jaw dropping. But private equity markets, Sojourner noted, have averaged a 5.2 percent rate of return since WWII, adjusted for inflation. The economic impact of very early ed is almost double that, he said.

More than a decade ago, economist Art Rolnick, then with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and his colleague Rob Grunewald, proposed funding early ed for all low-income Minnesota 3- and 4-year-olds. They bolstered their argument with research showing that the return on the public’s investment was more than $16 for every dollar spent.

That research was central to building the case for ensuring low-income families’ access to high-quality care. The economic implications brought Minnesota’s business and civic leaders to the table, where they underwrote a program to identify quality.

Full funding of an associated state scholarship fund, which now contains enough money to satisfy 9 percent of the need, will come before the Legislature next month.

Rolnick was quick to praise Sojourner’s work as groundbreaking. There are numerous studies showing the value of early ed, he explained, but the new vein of data Sojourner has tapped has only solidified earlier findings.

“The research Aaron is bringing to the table here is so important because we’re finding additional research independent of the classic [studies] that we cite that are finding similar results and, in fact, in some cases even better results,” said Rolnick, now co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota.

“There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that is now building through Aaron’s work in particular to show that indeed we can expect a very, very high return to the public by investing in high quality early education for our children.”

Finally, Sojourner noted, the findings are something of an oddity in economic research: “Early childhood investments are a rare policy area where there is not tension between efficiency and equity.”

“Usually, to make things more equal, we may have to make them less efficient. This is the conventional objection to policies like the minimum wage, progressive income taxes and the like,” Sojourner concluded. “But with early childhood investments, putting resources towards the development of disadvantaged children promotes both efficiency and equality.”

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Comments (28)

Bang for the buck

Very early childhood may be where we'd get the most bang for our taxpayer buck, but that's not where the most money is being invested. According to figures from the Urban Institute in D.C., via "Harper's Index," federal programs are spending nearly $7 on the elderly for every $1 spent on children under age 12.

“Estimated per capita mount the federal government spends on programs for children each year: $3,822”

“On programs for the elderly: $25,455”

Toddlers may have a few advocates here and there, but those lobbying efforts pale in comparison to the AARP and a host of other organizations, often very well-meaning, that promote the interests of people over age 65. As a grandparent and Certified Old Person myself, I don't want to appear to be encouraging letting the proverbial little old lady living modestly on Social Security starve so that a 2-year-old gets quality attention, at least not literally, but a shift in priorities seems manifestly necessary by policy makers and the legislature, and it wouldn't hurt for the general public to be far better educated (no pun intended) about the importance of this issue.

Wailing and gnashing of teeth over the achievement gap does nothing to alleviate that gap. In a society where the value of most things is viewed in a monetary light, it's time for those concerned about that achievement gap (i.e., policy makers and the legislature, among others) to put their money where their mouth is.

Early childhood ought to be – needs to be – a happy and enriching experience for every child, from every household. If the amount of money available to make that happen is limited, as it always is, then some hard choices may be necessary.

other gap

Has anyone calculated the Performance Gap in a way that takes into account the Attendance Gap? To what extent are the underperformers just not showing up -- missing significantly more days in school than the average kid misses? I suspect that the troubling performance gap will narrow when this factor gets factored in.

Jobs program

It's instructive that this proposal was created by a labor economist because it's nothing more than an idea to hire more unionist teachers.

The proposal itself is total nonsense. The government's own study showed that the benefits of Head Start, for example, were dissipated by the 3rd grade.

"The lasting effects of Head Start and early childhood education in general on children’s outcomes have been the focus of much study. Considering only outcomes through early elementary school and middle childhood, results for the HSIS cognitive outcomes are in line with other experimental and non-experimental early education studies. Non-experimental Head Start studies showed initial positive impacts of a roughly similar magnitude to those found in the HSIS that dissipated as the children entered early elementary school (Currie & Thomas, 1995; Garces, et al., 2002; Ludwig & Phillips 2008; Deming 2009). Moreover, recent longitudinal data from the experimental evaluation of Early Head Start (Vogel et al., 2010) showed a similar pattern of early positive impacts that were not sustained into elementary school." (pg. 151)

http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/head_start_report.pdf

Sojourner and Duncan should have taken some time to read it.

READ THE PAPER cited in the article, Dennis -

... your straw man of "what we're talking about here is Head Start" couldn't be more false.

In fact they cite Head Start statistics repeatedly in the paper, which you OBVIOUSLY IGNORE OR HAVE NOT READ, and compared it unfavorably with IHDP, the program they in fact write about in the study cited.

READ THE PAPER, Dennis. THEN comment.

Read sources

Impossible for him. When does this end?

HERE is where we should be investing public monies,...

...NOT on stadiums. One wonders what it takes to get the attention of the state legislature.

Nor should we continue to invest in any of the other things that haven't made a difference.

If what this study claims is so, or even partially true, we can hardly miss a huge monetary benefit. Intervening at the earliest ages portends other benefits, too - related to the other ills and costs associated with a tilted field - unfulfilled human potential, poverty, crime, social costs, and so on. And these benefits, it appears, will be long-lasting.

Good work on a tough problem

Mr. Schoch also makes a good observation about federal spending. But I want to point out for seniors federal spending is pretty much the only government spending around except for those in poverty. For education both the state and the school districts can and do allocate money to early education depending where you live.

Nothing however makes up for caring people who get you to school everyday. I have known teachers in small communities who have picked up kids for school actually getting them ready and driving them when their parents were shall we say unavailable.

We really need to care about kids in those society, not just ours but everyone's. The original Cohen (Ed) an economics professor at the U said "the rich get richer and the poor have children." This isn't a social statement it is an economic statement. If you have enough children it is likely one of them can take care of you in old age. The more we help make more children succeed the better off we will all be.

I'm skeptical...

This sounds a little too utopian for me. I've never seen anything that says any amount of special or extra schooling can overcome things outside of school like indiffernt, uneducated parents and other external factors. Poor people move a lot, changing schools and home. Poor parents as a rule, I would guess, are more likely to be unable to help with studies and less able to provide an environment for success.

Since there is no high quality preschool for almost anyone why would it be particularly effective with poor kids? I don't know what rich kids get but in my experience most middle class kids are in day cares that are designed more to take care of the kids while the parents are at work. Most of them don't have some intense educational emphasis. But yet most of those kids make up the majority of those succeeding.

I would guess high quality parenting and a stable home would do more to overcome poverty than any artificial, external program. Every time some kid with a poor background succeeds and is highlighted in the media, there is always a story about the parents and their dedication to their family in spite of economic and other disadvantages. Very, very seldom does a kid overcome poor parenting AND poverty. Gotta go with Tester on this one.

Parenting education is included

Concerns about the quality of parenting, which you raise, are key -- and the program in question addresses those very concerns. Home visits and parenting education were part of IHDP.

Home visits from a knowledgeable and caring person who offers encouragement to struggling parents and reminds them to talk to their children, read to them, and look after their health and nutrition might make all the difference in the world. Parents living in poverty don't always know where to turn for help, but a properly structured program could help them gain access to community resources.

That said, skepticism here is not entirely unwarranted. It would be utopian to think that we can just throw money at the problem, roll out generic programs and hope to close these gaps. We need to confirm what actually works and to rigorously determine how to replicate these results on a wider scale. That will take not only more resources that we are devoting to education today, but more commitment and ingenuity.

More resources, more effort

In addition to the home visits and parenting education, another thing about IHDP is that it is more expensive in time, dollars, and human resources. When compared to the Early Head Start (EHS) program - it offers 2080 hours of programming vs 437 hours for EHS. It also implements a 3:1 staff:student ratio. So it clearly will require a higher investment than current programs.

Also, on the issue of scaling, the study itself says, "We do not know whether the IHDP treatment could be scaled up in a general way," although it was implemented at 8 different sites around the country.

So proceeding with caution is prudent, and there certainly are unknowns. But the costs of unequal outcomes for children are absolutely ENORMOUS. We should divert money currently known to be going down the drain to see what a wider implementation of IHDP could do.

still skeptical....

You both raise good points, but I remain skeptical. If a parent actively goes out looking for help and follows it that is probably not the kind of parent I'm concerned about. This whole thing assumes a poor parent just naturally wants to be a "better" parent according to how society maeasures that. There are a lot (I have no idea of percentages for any of my perceptions here) of good parents stuck in poverty because that is where they were born or put there by circumstances or the still present effects of racism. But there are also a lot of parents, maybe from the same background who are fighting addiction and their own indifference or poor choices (especially single parents) who are in the process of raising the next generation of poor parents. Not to say I'd give up or that I think society should but I think there is a fair percentage here that won't be helped no matter how many programs we have or how much pressure we apply. I guess it is just my skepticism to the "magic bullet" sound of this article (which I read poorly) that has me naysaying.

Bill, your stereo types are showing

Do poor people move more frequently that wealthy people? Poor parents don't want to be good parents? Poor parents are NOT good parents compared to affluent or wealthy parents? So Paris Hilton had better parents because they were not poor? There is little evidence that affluent parents actually do better parenting, their kids just have economic advantages that poor kids don't have. Look at outcomes- The Columbine shooters had affluent parents who bought them the guns they used to kill their classmates, was THAT good parenting? Dude, didn't you ever read: "Ordinary People?"

Bad parents are distributed across the economic spectrum, they are not concentrated amongst the poor. There's nothing Utopian about this, unless you think Finland is Utopia?

bill is correct

its not a stereotype its more common sense, that is something that is missing in todays world

small l labor economist

1) As a labor economist Sojourner studies the workforce, it has nothing to do with big L Labor.
2) They did read the study, as the article points out.
3) They are calling for an earlier intervention than traditional Head Start, beginning 2 years before age 3.
4) Whining and blaming poor parenting gets us nowhere in closing the achievement gap.
5) Very Early childhood education (investing very early in our future citizens) has proven to be a very wise use of resources, much cheaper than incarceration for example.
6) I would suggest in the future that Mr. Tester reads an article prior to criticizing it. He has a point of view, as anyone who reads comments on Minn Post can see, however just repeating talking points does not advance the discourse.

Jobs program

Mr. Tester is often amusing. I assume it’s unintentional.

The report he’s citing is not a comprehensive study of preschool child care and education. It’s a study of the Head Start program and its long-term effects. The report and its authors made no attempt to study other programs and/or types of preschool child care and education for poor children, of which there are quite a number, though they, too, merit research. If Head Start were the only “quality” preschool program extant, and the choice was thus between Head Start or, literally, nothing, then I’d be inclined to support Mr. Tester’s criticism.

It isn’t.

Fortunately/unfortunately, depending upon one’s view of preschool children and their value, Head Start, while often used by the poor, is neither the only preschool alternative to poor parenting available to poor preschool kids, nor is it necessarily the best one. It is, however, demonstrably better than nothing at all.

In fact, had Mr. Tester followed his own advice and taken some time to read the report he cites –

http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/head_start_report.pdf

he’d have discovered that children who were not enrolled in Head Start were allowed to take part in other kinds of preschool programs, and that about 60% of those children did just that.

For those children whose experience was limited to the single year of Head Start that’s the subject of the report, it’s more than a little curious that, though the gains made do tend to fade out by 3rd grade, the response in some circles to that problem of "fade-out," which remains an issue in education at every level, and at every stage of life, is that, since the gains aren’t “permanent,” they’re of no value at all, and the program should be dismissed.

Bill Schletzer misses the point that Sojourner is making. High quality preschool experiences are an attempt, apparently at least partly successful, to make up for the factors that Schletzer himself lists. Parents all over Minnesota might take issue with his assertion that “…there is no high quality preschool for almost anyone.” Yes, there are day care centers that are not much more than holding pens for toddlers, but there are, fortunately, plenty of other preschools that *do* provide an educational emphasis. The problem, of course, is that few of those “quality” experiences for preschoolers are free. Poor parents, even if they want to provide a rich and varied preschool environment for their children (and Mr. Schletzer should not kid himself that poor parents are never interested in just that), often lack the resources to do so. It’s one more in a series of handicaps under which the poor labor.

I’d argue that his final paragraph has things backward. Overcoming poverty seems to me likely to do more to provide high quality parenting and a stable home than the reverse. A stable home is difficult to provide when you can’t pay the rent. Offhand, I don’t know what kind of research has been done connecting poverty and “high quality parenting,” but I *have* read articles drawing on research that correlates a stable home to a middle-class income. Mr. Schletzer is correct that it’s seldom – and usually the topic of much commentary and conversation – when a kid overcomes both poverty AND poor parenting.

That, however, provides a feeble foundation upon which to support Mr. Tester’s opinion.

I didn't miss the point

The title of the article included the statement "...would eliminate the achievement gap". There is nothing "partially successful" about that. Further, I would never kid myself "that poor parents are never.." anything. As to your final critique of my post we are now in the chicken versus egg territory. But for me, things like poverty, addiction, poor parenting. crummy school environments adn single-parent homes are all seperate problems. You can fix any single problem in that list for a particular family or person and when you are done the other problems remain. Maybe they are slightly improved, but not eliminated. Easiest example I can think of: get parent sober. That should improve the parenting some but it won't undo all the damage that has been done to the kids up to that point. Even easier: give an addict a good job, but not sobriety. That won't help the kids except superficially, for the most part.

I do support anti-poverty programs, raising the minimum wage, tutoring in poor schools and many other practical programs but the title of the article offered a magic bullet. I argue it is not that easy. You critique me with an "always/never" type argument. I never say never.

More programs from the establishment

I am always amazed at the salesmanship, tactics, and manipulation used by the elites to further the advancement of the “trickle down education” monopoly.
Instead, let us empower families to make education available for all the children.

What the estimate really said

Yes, there is a lot of research about the value of high quality early childhood programs for students from low income families. But the head line is mis-leading. Here's what the authors actually said (and yes, I read it twice.)

"Despite considerable fadeout of program effects, our estimates suggest that income- based gaps in age- fi ve IQ would be substantially reduced or even eliminated completely. Our
increasingly imprecise estimates suggest that one- third to three- quarters of the gaps in
age eight IQ and achievement would be eliminated."

This is not a panacea, folks.

Very impressive gains

I didn't hear anyone promising an easy solution. But if a program can be adopted that delivers on these estimates, it would be a very substantial and meaningful improvement that provides a basis for further gains. Over years and across generations, improvement of this magnitude would likely pay dividends.

There will be no panaceas, nor unicorns, alas. But I hope that won't stop us from doing what we can to improve education for children living in poverty.

....and there is why we will never get headway on this.

Of course this is not a panacea. Only the corporate/privatization education reform you peddle offers quick fix, endless promise, panaceas. This is exactly why things like fully funding kindergarten took so long, and early childhood help won't get funded, even though it is research backed to help kids.

All of the money in education reform is dedicated to convincing us not to even consider fighting for structural, societal changes in how we support equity from cradle to grave. It is much cheaper to blame teachers, shuffle underprivileged kids from closed school to about to close charter school, and change labor practices that have no correlation to achievement.

The richest segments from the dominant culture of our society own education reform. They don't want to do something that might actually cost them money. It is not a surprise that one of their local spokesperson is speaking out against research that is actually correlated to achievement.

I think that's the big difference between Republican versions

of education reform and ed reforms that are being pushed by mostly progressive organizations in the Twin Cities like Teach for America, MinnCAN, the African-American Leadership Forum, The Minneapolis Foundation, Students for Education Reform, Students First, Charter School Partners, Put Kids First Minneapolis and others.

Most of the people in the latter groups are progressive Democrats who support Alec's call for
"structural societal changes to support equity from cradle to grave." We completely agree with Alec when it comes to spending money to end poverty and income inequality. We support fully funding schools, including kindergarten, early childhood and parent education. (And can I just add that after 20-plus years, I'm tired of reading yet another report that proves the importance of early intervention and then watch yet another generation of politicians refuse to fund it.)

As progressives Democrats who support education reform, we reject the false choice between solving poverty issues OR making our schools work better for the students who are actually in our classrooms, especially kids of color. We can do both. As a moral imperative, we have to do both.

It's funny...

American conservatives always claim to be the "family" people, but they've always been death on early childhood programs that actually help families, unless it's affluent families. Look at the programs they support for college education and private education. We have decades of data that early intervention and education makes a huge difference, but conservatives seem to think that "discipline" is the problem. It's always "discipline" with these people.

Continuing to miss the point

On MPR's "The Daily Circuit" this morning, one of the topics was closing the achievement gap, and one of the guests was Michelle Walker, Chief of staff for the St. Paul Public Schools. At one point Keri Miller brought up this study - she DID make a point to say it was focused on kids from ages one to three. And in an answer that could have been scripted by Dennis Tester himself, Ms. Walker immediately went into a long drawn out response on how all those "Pre-K" programs have shown gains but that the gains are lost by the third grade and that although investments in "Pre-K" are nice, money needs to be spent on K-12 to really address the issues, etc. etc. etc.

And Keri didn't challenge her on her inaccurate response (in fact expressed incredulity that the gains are lost by 3rd grade - can't believe she hasn't heard that statistic if she's been researching this at all) and let the whole mention of this study get swept under the rug by Ms Walker without clarifying for her that the "Pre-K" that Ms. Walker was talking about was an entirely different thing than the program that was the subject of the study Keri had brought up.

No wonder these things never get a serious hearing if no one ever challenges the initial knee jerk rejections. If people aren't discussing the correct and accurate details, then they might as well not have the discussion at all.

thank you

Mayflower Early Childhood Center serves families in South Minneapolis. Our mission is to serve a diverse community and to provide high quality Montessori learning environments that meet
the developmental needs of the whole child. We provide tuition assistance to families so that children can have a high quality preschool education. This article is helpful to us and to our families. We live this work. http://www.mayflowerchildren.org

How have we gotten this far?

With no education prior to kindergarten (if then) 20 plus years ago and before, the U.S. rose to great heights in medicine, technology, science, and business. Now that we have children who are "kindergarten ready" and looking into education as soon as a child leaves the hospital after birth there is a monstrous achievement gap that needs closing. Before forcing more education on our kids, maybe we should find out what is causing this tremendous rate of failure, just in case it is not a lack of education.

Achievement gap

Were we measuring the "achievement gap" in those days? Were we even aware of it (on a formal institutional level)?

Society is a Changing

America did well in the past and there were many jobs for laborers, skilled craftsmen, farmers, etc. So the achievement gap was not very important. One could due poorly in school, get a good paying job, and make a reasonable living.

Now that consumers demand low cost high quality goods, transportation & communication costs have dropped, automation is possible, the rest of the world is recovered from WWI & II, etc, many of those jobs have disappeared in America. Which creates a big problem within our society. (ie citizens not qualified for the good paying jobs that are available)

I would also argue that many families are not as responsible as they once were. You know we have a problem when a student gets in trouble in school and the parents get angry at the teacher. The increase in single parent households surely aren't helping kids either.

I like the Harlem's Children

I like the Harlem's Children Zone concept, however I have no idea how to make it work in the public sector. The public union employees almost killed it in it's infancy when they tried to operate out of a NY public school. The head of the NY schools recommended that they move to their own facility.

http://hcz.org/

Also, there are always going to people that are going to rebel at the idea of being "helped" / "taught". They take it as a personal insult of their capabilities and belief systems

The question I have is how due we hold Parent's accountable to raising their infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers in a healthy learning environment? We don't necessarily need more public ed, we do need all parents to be caring, capable and responsible parents... Reading to one's children, setting limits, enforcing limits, participating in play dates, etc doesn't cost much...