Early Education Seen in a Human Capital Framework

December 23, 2010

The idea that education leads to the accumulation of capital in the form of more productive workers and that this returns a profit to those who invest in it goes all the way back to Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, the man considered the father of capitalism and whose The Wealth of Nations is considered the first modern work of economics.  It is ironic that in this day and age, the human capital rationale for investing in more and better early education continues to receive short shrift in this most capital-oriented of countries while China and other rising powers forge ahead of us on this front. Could it be that our policymakers are not sufficiently persuaded?

If so, Childhood Programs and Practices in the First Decade of Life: A Human Capital Integration, recently published by Cambridge University Press, provides all the evidence even the skeptics among our political leadership will need in a single volume. In it, leading scholars in human development and early childhood education discuss the effects and cost effectiveness of the most thoroughly studied model early childhood programs as well as state and federal programs. Head Start, Early Head Start, the WIC nutrition program, the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, the Nurse-Family Partnership, the Perry Preschool Program, and state pre-K are among them. Also discussed are various school reform strategies.

The book applies a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding and improving programs, practices, and policies with a goal of fostering increased human capital. This is reflected in the editors chosen for the assignment: Arthur J. Reynolds is a professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota and director of the Chicago Longitudinal Study. Arthur J. Rolnick is senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and associate economist with the Federal Open Market Committee. Michelle M. Englund is a research associate and affiliate member of the Graduate Faculty in Child Psychology at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. Judy A. Temple is an associate professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.

State-funded early childhood education is well represented in the book. Georgetown University’s William T. Gormley who has studied Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program extensively provides his analysis of the impressive gains made by that program in Tulsa.  Our NIEER team, including co-director Ellen Frede and fellow NIEER researchers Kwanghee Jung, Cynthia Esposito Lamy (now at Robin Hood Foundation), and Alexandra Figueras, contributes a chapter on the long-term effects of New Jersey’s well-regarded Abbott Preschool Program. Robert G. Lynch, Washington College, provides a state-level synthesis of the cost effectiveness of public investment in high-quality pre-K.

In addition to Arthur Reynolds, other NIEER affiliated authors in this book include Clive Belfield (Queens College, City University of New York), Henry Levin (Columbia University), Robert C. Pianta (University of Virginia), Lawrence J. Schweinhart (HighScope Educational Research Foundation), and Edward Zigler (Yale University).

Childhood Programs and Practices in the First Decade of Life: A Human Capital Integration emanates from a conference by the same name held by the Human Capital Research Collaborative. That’s the organization sponsored by the University of Minnesota and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that explores links between human capital and economic development, public health, education, and other connections. With this effort, they have gone a long way toward accomplishing their mission.


What the PISA Scores Are Telling Us

December 17, 2010

There is much talk in Finland these days about the country’s showing in the recent international comparison of PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores — not the self-congratulation one might expect from a country that topped yet again the list of high performing countries, but rather a sober look at the report’s nuances. A slight decline in Finland’s reading scores have educators looking for solutions and Minister of Education Henna Virkkunen urging reinforcement of reading skills beginning with “very early education.” It’s a good bet the Finns will take action to remedy what they see as a problem and they will not wait until kids are in formal schooling to apply it.

We should be so lucky. Many responses coming from the chorus of experts in this country to the poor showing of our 15-year-olds look past early childhood education, failing to recognize that preschool education is a strong predictor of difference across countries in PISA scores. According to the PISA report, students who attended preschool scored higher more than a decade after they moved on to the higher grades.

Michael Davidson at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which conducts PISA points out that 20 percent of the U.S. performance was attributed to social background. This is much higher than in other countries in the evaluation. This too argues for making substantial new investments in high-quality pre-K. While research shows all kids benefit from pre-K, it is the disadvantaged kids who benefit most. Yet despite the evidence, policymakers at all levels continue to seek reforms that have little positive effect. They apparently haven’t gotten the message, backed by abundant research, that high-quality preschool produces positive effects, not to mention high returns on the public’s investment in it.

This message has obviously resonated in Shanghai, China, which now sits at the very top of the list of high performers. Like Finland, this immense city with a population equal to many large U.S. states also provides universal pre-K and requires highly trained teachers. We don’t have to model what we do after the Chinese or the Finns. We can look to selected communities in the United States that have already adopted serious reforms including raising the quality of early care and education. But we do have to begin taking high-quality preschool education as seriously and with the same sense of urgency as the most educationally successful nations. After all, their children are the ones our kids will be competing against.

Ellen Frede & Steve Barnett

Co-directors, NIEER


Forget the Tea Party — The Milk Party Has Arrived!

December 9, 2010

Think the Children’s Movement of Florida is just another garden variety advocacy effort? You’re likely to think again after watching what could be the most compelling 15 minutes of video ever produced making the case for putting children at the top of our priority list. It incorporates five issues of the movement’s focus, the 4 ½-minute “I Am Florida” video, a portion of the CNN national story seen by millions of people, and highlights from the Milk Party rallies in which 15,000 Floridians participated.

Anyone who has worked with David Lawrence, Jr., the children’s advocate, retired publisher of The Miami Herald, and spark plug behind the movement knows he is an able executive. Here we see Lawrence and his fellow advocates crisscrossing the state aboard the smartly decked out Children’s Movement bus that served as a mobile command center for the milk party tour. The milk party designation the group chose was an inspired move. It speaks both to the grassroots nature of the movement and the impressive momentum Lawrence and his associates built as they pulled into town after town to the enthusiastic support of large crowds. Some have wondered if the milk party might spread to other states — possibly even become a national movement. Only time — and the actions of other advocates and concerned citizens across the country — will tell.


At a Critical Crossroads: Why Austerity Now is a False Cure

December 3, 2010

I have written in recent weeks about the difficult circumstances in which middle- and low-income families have found themselves over the past decade, as amply illustrated by the most recent census report, and pointed out the hardships the recession is placing on public budgets in general and early childhood education in particular. That this confluence of events poses a grave danger to the progress made in early childhood education should be apparent to one and all. Yet it apparently is not in this political season of achieving fiscal austerity at all costs.

This is an ominous sign for those of us whose responsibility it is to look at public investments through the prism of the returns they provide the nation in the form of future human capital formation (better-educated workforce) and our global competitiveness. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, chairmen of the president’s deficit commission charged with making recommendations for returning the nation to prosperity recognize the need to invest in education. But they were unable to convince enough elected officials in their group, whose ears are bent to the call for austerity sweeping the country, to sign on to the report.

Now come two reports that offer sensible analyses and additional prescriptions for making critical investments in programs like early education while setting the nation on a course to recovery. Both point out that at this crossroads in our economy, austerity at this point in time represents a false cure. One, a special report in the November issue of The American Prospect, devotes 10 articles to various aspects of the economic debate. Its purpose is, as editor Robert Kuttner writes, to disentangle the proper sequencing of recovery spending and deficit reduction, agreeing with Bowles, Simpson, Alice Rivlin, Pete Domenici, and others that the nation needs better fiscal balance once we emerge from this deep recession. But now, when unemployment is unacceptably high and families are struggling, is no time to cut back on social investment. In fact, stepping up social investment at this time is critical to achieving the recovery the deficit hawks seek through austerity.

In the Prospect report, political scientists Christopher Howard and Richard Valelly aptly refer to the post-election obsession with austerity as “deficit-attention disorder” pointing out that even though Americans are worried about the deficit, the great majority of polls show they are far more worried about the economy’s weakness than the nation’s public debt. Once again, the public is displaying more wisdom than many of those representing them in Washington give them credit for. Perhaps some recall that during the Great Depression, it was the premature fiscal tightening that pushed the U.S. economy back into recession — an outcome we now run the risk of repeating.

Economist James K. Galbraith points out that fully half the increase in the budget deficit is due to collapsing tax revenues. Less than 10 percent is due to increases in discretionary public expenditure such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He separates the deficit into the active deficit — comprised of social spending for things like stimulating employment and education — and the passive deficit, which is incurred due to high unemployment which reduces tax revenues necessary to pay for public spending. It is, in fact, this passive, recession-induced deficit that makes it impossible, no matter how much austerity is imposed on social spending, to wipe out the public debt. Read the rest of this entry »


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