The State of the Union and Early Education

January 28, 2011

Like many others I was disappointed that President Obama didn’t mention early childhood education in his State of the Union Speech. Yet when he talked about education, government, and the American people the president said many of the right things for our early learning programs. He noted a sense of urgency when he said the future is ours to win but to get there, we can’t just stand still. He called for more competent and efficient government and for every classroom to be “a place of high expectations and high performance.”  His call to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world” had that uniquely American “can do” ring to it that early education policymakers and practitioners should heed.

The president made his case for quick action when he pointed out that over the next 10 years nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And, he pointed out that as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. He asked whether all of us — as citizens and as parents — are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed and he pointed out that when a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance.

He spoke proudly of Race to the Top, pointing out that instead of just pouring money into the status quo his administration launched a competition for innovation and reform across the education spectrum.  The Obama administration has moved similarly to bring competition to Head Start.  Properly implemented, this has the potential—to paraphrase the president—to be the most meaningful reform our early childhood system has seen in a generation.  The administration should have the support of everyone in the early childhood field to get this reform right, and in my opinion that means including measures of children’s learning in decisions about who gets funded.  This principle ought to be extended to subsidized child care, as well.

Of course there is much more to be done in way of directing funds specifically to innovation in the early education sector so that we too can reinvent ourselves.  We need a great deal more research and evaluation aimed at identifying the effects and costs of policy and practice alternatives in early care and education.  The federal government could greatly facilitate reinvention by sponsoring a program of research to help guide policymakers at the state and local level as well as program administrators in Head Start, child care, and the public schools.  By incentivizing local innovation by educators willing to engage in experiments (freeing them from regulations that get in the way of innovating on a trial basis) and systematically collecting good data on the costs and effects of these innovations, government can build on the hard work, creativity, and imagination of our people the president recognized.  Nothing could help us more to do big things for little children.

Steve Barnett

Co-director, NIEER

Early Childhood Education and the U.S. Labor Market Crisis

January 21, 2011

Guest post by Tim Bartik, Senior Economist, Upjohn Institute for Employment Research

Tim BartikAs Steve Barnett’s recent post indicated, the U.S. faces a prolonged labor market recovery. As of today, the U.S. would need more than 10 million additional jobs to return to the employment to population ratio at the beginning of this recession (December 2007). Based on typical job growth rates, the U.S. will take five to 10 years before returning to “normal” employment conditions.

Given our labor market crisis, every area of public policy must consider how it might improve the labor market.  This includes early childhood education. Advocates of early childhood programs need to answer how early childhood programs might deal with the U.S.’s labor market problems.

First, the labor market crisis means that early childhood programs are more needed than ever to make up for negative effects of parents’ labor market problems on young children.  Research by Greg Duncan and others shows that parental income when a child is ages zero to five has large effects on the child’s later earnings as an adult. Once we control for parental income when a child is five or less, parental income at later ages does not much affect the child’s later earnings as an adult. This fits in with the assumption of early childhood education that children are more malleable to various influences (parental income, quality of preschool, etc.) when they are young.

Therefore, more children are at risk than before the economic crisis. The economic returns to early childhood education occur for all children, but are greater for at-risk children.  The labor market crisis implies that investments now in early childhood education will have particularly high rates of return.

Second, early childhood programs provide economic stimulus by spending more money.  Preschool teachers spend their salaries, which stimulates the economy. There is a net stimulus even once we adjust for the taxes needed to finance early childhood education.  In my new book, Investing in Kids, I estimate that the spending associated with preschool (with some effects from the child care provided) will immediately boost earnings by about 22 percent of the preschool spending.

Third, we should explore packaging early childhood programs with programs that can help parents find jobs, such as well-designed adult job training programs. There could be some positive synergies between early childhood programs and job training programs for parents. The early childhood program provides time for parents to engage in job training programs. Parents may be more forward-looking with respect to their over lives if they believe that their child’s needs are being addressed. Read the rest of this entry »

Suffer the Children: An Alarming Confluence of Events

January 14, 2011

While investors are celebrating brighter prospects, the news from the hinterlands continues in a much darker vein. The Wall Street Journal reports that wages for a broad swath of the labor force have taken a “sharp and swift” fall to an extent rarely seen since the Great Depression. Between 2007 and 2009 more than half of workers who lost jobs and then found new ones reported wage declines, with more than a third of them reporting declines of 20 percent or more. Experts say it will be years, if ever, before their wages return to pre-recession levels.

This — and the fact that real unemployment in the U.S. continues well above 10 percent — should be setting of alarm bells for anyone worried about the nation’s future. Research shows that children whose parents lose jobs and eventually find new ones at lower wages suffer from lower wages themselves. The Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) tracked the progress of people who, as children, lived through the post-war recessions that began in 1973 and 1980. Kids whose parents suffered layoffs end up with lower earnings when they became adults. The impact was concentrated in kids from lower-income families, presumably because parental unemployment posed a larger threat to things that were critical to family sustenance. It was especially pronounce for children who were the youngest during the recessions. The researchers conclude that:

“… children who fall into poverty during a recession will fare far worse along a range of variables than will their peers who did not fall into poverty. They will live in households with lower incomes, they will earn less themselves and they have a greater chance at living in or near poverty as adults. They will achieve lower levels of education, and they will be less likely to be gainfully employed. Children who experience recession-induced poverty will even have poorer health than their peers who stayed out of poverty during the childhood recession.”

We already know that poverty has been rising in the U.S. for decades. The latest Census Bureau data show the gap between rich and poor to be the widest on record. The ratio of earnings between the top and bottom is about double what it was when the Census Bureau began tracking it in 1967.

Confronting this threat to the nation’s future well-being with investments in high-quality early childhood education would help secure their future.  Yet early education is not a high priority among the policy solutions we see being put forth to address our long-term rise in poverty. It’s encouraging to hear some suggest federal aid to the states. A portion of this should be dedicated to competitive federal grants to the states for high-quality early education.

Children are not able to vote and households with children are a declining percentage of American households. Yet they represent 100 percent of the nation’s future well-being. As we view our policy solutions, we should apply the cold calculus any successful business uses in making economic decisions. If we do that — and take even a rudimentary look at the returns to be had by investing in early childhood education — it should rise to the top of the policy priority list.

Steve Barnett

Co-director, NIEER

First Do No Harm: It’s Time to Address Our Quality Problem

January 6, 2011

In the next several years, those of us who believe government policies can and should help children and families are going to be in a tough fight.  We need to be clear that this is not so much a fight for money as it is a fight for learning and development — a fight to ensure that every child has a chance to get in the game and compete on a level playing field in economic, social, and political life. The problem is, we can’t fully meet this challenge as long as we abide, and even seem to endorse, early childhood programs that don’t support learning and development.

In the last several years, a number of studies have found that child care subsidies negatively impact child development.  This finding is particularly disturbing because we know that good early care and education enhances child development.  So why all the bad news?  A quick look at the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth Cohort study, commonly called ECLS-B, provides some insights.  At age 2, 12 percent of children in poverty were in center-based care.   More than twice as many, 27 percent, were in home-based (nonparental) care.  Unfortunately, two-thirds of that home-based care was poor quality and virtually none of it was good.  Center-based care was much better, relatively speaking.  Only 15 percent was poor quality and 20 percent good or better.  With those numbers it should come as no surprise that children from low-income families are not benefiting from, and may even be harmed by, home-based care as it is currently provided.

Child care subsidy policy in the United States is designed to get the unemployed, mostly women, into the labor force as cheaply as possible and encourages the use of low-cost home-based care over centers.  In other words, federal and state child care policies increase the numbers of children from low-income families in poor quality early learning environments.  At the same time, they have little effect on labor force participation.  This is the policy equivalent of shooting ourselves in the head, given the importance of early learning and development for later school success and achievement.  It also reinforces inequality and the cycle of poverty.  We need to turn these policies around now.

The State Early Learning Advisory Councils that have recently been formed provide an opportunity to do just that beginning with three actions.

  • First, the Councils can collect data on the quality of early learning for infants and toddlers that will reveal just how bad the problem is state by state.  This information can help bring the problem to the attention of the general public and elected officials.
  • Second, the Councils can recommend policy changes that will increase quality and tie public subsidies to quality.  Ideally, public subsidies should only go to care providers of good or better quality.  This will take some time, but every state should be able to eliminate subsidies for poor quality care entirely within five years.  No government should encourage the use of poor quality care.
  • Third, the Councils should produce estimates of the costs of ensuring that (a) no subsidized care is of poor quality and (b) all subsidized care is good or better.

Given the tough budget decisions facing states and the federal government, the question is, are these recommendations realistic?  I believe they are. Frankly, if we accept the view that we can only afford poor quality care, we might as well give up subsidies altogether.  We should face the fact that we may do more harm than good by subsidizing poor quality care, and we should stop it.  Moreover, we are in a weak position to oppose cutbacks when quality is not “job one.”  Some members of Congress already have proposed rolling back spending for child care subsidies and Early Head Start to 2008 levels.  Without a floor on care quality, it is much easier to hide the consequences of funding cuts because the amount per child can be cut without reducing the number of children served.  In anticipation, each State Advisory Council should have in hand figures for the number of subsidized children who can be supported in adequate care with the current funding and the number who can be supported in adequate care if funding is rolled back to 2008 levels.

If we are willing to condone spending public dollars on poor quality care, we can’t convincingly make our case for additional funding.  It is just about the money at that point, and even if we win, our children lose.   Let’s take the option of poor quality care off the child care subsidy table.

Steve Barnett,

Co-director, NIEER

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