Early Education Has Its Day

December 11, 2014

Yesterday, the White House hosted its first Summit on Early Childhood Education. The Summit brought together a wide variety of stakeholders, including local government officials; private philanthropy; researchers; federal government officials; and business leaders. The President’s remarks can be seen here. The event also launched the InvestInUs campaign, administered by the First Five Years Fund to encourage private-public investment in a range of early childhood activities. The campaign released a profile of major private commitments, as well as highlighting notable “early learning communities” that may serve as models for other communities. The White House Council of Economic Advisers released a new report, The Economics of Early Childhood Investments, which examined the benefits of a wide range of early childhood education programs, from home visiting to kindergarten. A recap of the ongoing Twitter conversation can be seen here.

The Departments of Education and Health and Human Services also made major announcements aligned with the Summit. Eighteen states were announced as winners of competitive federal Preschool Development and Expansion Grants. Grant winners are displayed in Figure 1, with amounts in Figure 2.

Image Source: Department and Health and Human Services & Department of Education. (2014). What are preschool development grants? http://www2.ed.gov/programs/preschooldevelopmentgrants/pdgfactsheet.pdf

Image Source: Department and Health and Human Services & Department of Education. (2014). What are preschool development grants? http://www2.ed.gov/programs/preschooldevelopmentgrants/pdgfactsheet.pdf

Development grants are for states with no or small state-funded pre-K programs, while expansion grants are for those states with established programs to improve quality and increase access. More information on the current preschool offerings of these states is available here. The Departments estimate that this $226 million investment will expand services to more than 33,000 additional children in the first year alone and ensure that children are experiencing preschool of high quality. The Department has released score sheets and applications for winners and for those who did not receive funding.

The Department of Health and Human Services also announced preliminary grantees for their Early Head Start-Child Care partnerships. The program, which works with existing child care settings to expand access for infants and toddlers to high-quality care, will provide $435 million in funding to 234 grantees. The Department noted that it is still in negotiation with the agencies they’ve announced, and that the award amounts may be subject to change. The full allocation of $500 million will be awarded by the end of March 2015.

All told, this week’s announcements are adding new federal funds for early childhood education to 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Mariana Islands, and will serve an estimated 63,000 additional children. While state education departments and others who have worked hard on these applications are surely enjoying well-deserved celebrations, the greatest challenge may be on the horizon: implementing the plans and working toward the goal of expanding quality early education.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER/CEELO


The research says high quality preschool does benefit kids

October 21, 2014

In a response for the Washington Post Answer Sheet, Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research deconstructs a new Cato Institute policy brief by David J. Armor, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University, who also has a piece on washingtonpost.com arguing his position under the headline “We have no idea if universal preschool actually helps kids.” We do know. It does. Here are some excerpts from the post, which can be read in its entirety here, outlining what the research really says:

First, if one really believes that today’s preschool programs are much less effective than the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs because those programs were so much more costly and intensive, and started earlier, then the logical conclusion is that today’s programs should be better funded, more intensive, and start earlier. I would agree. Head Start needs to be put on steroids. New Jersey’s Abbott pre-K model (discussed later) starts at 3 and provides a guide as it has been found to have solid long-term effects on achievement and school success. Given the high rates of return estimated for the Perry and Abecedarian programs, it is economically foolish not to move ahead with stronger programs.

Blog set 3Second, Armor’s claims regarding flaws in the regression discontinuity (RD) studies of pre-K programs in New Jersey, Tulsa, Boston, and elsewhere are purely hypothetical and unsubstantiated. Every research study has limitations and potential weaknesses, including experiments. It is not enough to simply speculate about possible flaws; one must assess how likely they are to matter. (See the extended post for more details.)

Third, the evidence that Armor relies on to argue that Head Start and Tennessee pre-K have no long-term effects is not experimental. It’s akin to the evidence from the Chicago Longitudinal Study and other quasi-experimental studies that he disregards when they find persistent impacts. Bartik points to serious methodological concerns with this research. Even more disconcerting is Armor’s failure to recognize the import of all the evidence he cites from the Tennessee study. Tennessee has both a larger experimental study and a smaller quasi-experimental substudy. The larger experiment finds that pre-K reduces subsequent grade retention, from 8% to 4%. The smaller quasi-experimental substudy Armor cites as proof of fade-out finds a much smaller reduction from 6% to 4%. Armor fails to grasp that this indicates serious downward bias in the quasi-experimental substudy or that both approaches find a large subsequent impact on grade retention, contradicting his claim of fade-out.

Among the many additional errors in Armor’s review I address 3 that I find particularly egregious. First, he miscalculates cost. Second, he misses much of the most rigorous evidence. And, third he misrepresents the New Jersey Abbott pre-K programs and its impacts. (See the extended post for more details.)

When a reviewer calls for policy makers to hold off on a policy decision because more research is needed, one might assume that he had considered all the relevant research. However, Armor’s review omits much of the relevant research. (See the extended post for more details.)

Those who want an even more comprehensive assessment of the flaws in Armor’s review can turn to Tim Bartik’s blog post and a paper NIEER released last year, as little of Armor’s argument is new. For a more thorough review of the evidence regarding the benefits of preschool I recommend the NIEER papers and WSIPP papers already cited and a recent review by an array of distinguished researchers in child development policy.

If all the evidence is taken into account, I believe that policy makers from across the political spectrum will come to the conclusion that high-quality pre-K is indeed a sound public investment.

–Steve Barnett, NIEER Director


The Empire State Leads the Way

March 18, 2014

Two of New York’s most distinguished leaders who shared a family name (Roosevelt) were strong advocates for the 99 percent, long before that term was common with their campaigns for the “Square Deal” and the “New Deal.” Today’s leaders are poised to echo their efforts with what might be called the “Real Deal.” A key element of the real deal is to give every child access to a world class 21st Century education, beginning with high quality pre-K for all.  New York State has been promising universal preschool to its children for 20 years. With leadership from the NYC Mayor, the Governor, and Legislators in the Senate and Assembly they are finally moving to fulfill that promise–a victory for New York’s young learners and the middle class. Last week, the State Senate proposed supporting free full-day prekindergarten and after-school programs in New York City with $540 million per year in state funds over 5 years.  The Assembly has already endorsed Mayor de Blasio’s plan for expansion with a pre-K and after-school tax on NYC’s wealthiest.

The next step is for leaders to come together behind a single plan to move forward, with a firm commitment to financing and a timeline for delivering on this promise. Recent statements indicate that New York’s leaders are prepared to put partisanship and personal ambition aside to do right by the state’s children.  The Assembly and Mayor have indicated they can accept the Senate plan. The Governor has repeatedly said he supports fully funding pre-K and should join them and make this plan a reality. If he does so, he will have propelled the preschool-for-all movement to a major turning point, not just in New York, but in the nation.  New York is the third most populous state.  If it were an independent country it would have the world’s 16th largest economy. With high-quality public education beginning at age four for all, New York will become a model for other states and even countries beyond our borders.

As we reported in our 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook, New York State has some way to go to achieve this goal of national and international leadership in early education.  It currently serves about 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, ranking ninth in the nation for enrollment, but funding per child has not kept pace with program expansion, jeopardizing quality.
NY state enrollment
NY state spending

Providing adequate funding and a timeline for implementation is a major step toward the real deal in pre-K, but political leaders must also support the hard work needed to successfully implement this plan and deliver the promise.  This will require a relentless focus on quality, and a shift from campaigning to governing that will provide pre-K programs with the support and accountability required to achieve and maintain excellence in every pre-K classroom.  At this stage it is important to ensure that state and local agencies have the resources to guide this continuous improvement process, as in other states where pre-K has produced the promised results (Michigan, North Carolina, and New Jersey, to name a few).

When well implemented, pre-K is a valuable and important long-term investment.  At NIEER we estimate that by offering all children quality pre-K, New York will actually realize a net reduction of more than $1 billion in its education budget by 2030. This figure includes cost-savings as a result of reducing special education placement and grade retention.  It does not include other long-term benefits from improving the education of New York’s children–increased productivity and economic growth and better health outcomes, among them.

New York isn’t alone in the pre-K push. Even states that have not historically supported pre-K are getting in on the investment, including: a small program in Hawaii; a pilot program in Indiana; and a new program legislated in Mississippi.  Yet, New York’s UPK initiative, if done well, could become the nation’s leading example of good early education policy because of its proposed quality and scale.  It’s time for every New Yorker to get behind this initiative and work with the Governor, Mayor, and legislative leaders of both parties, to carry through on New York’s 20-year-old promise.

– Steve Barnett, Director

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor


Pre-K and Tobacco, Perfect Together?

April 15, 2013

Steve BarnettHigh-quality pre-K for all funded by a tobacco tax is a winning combination. It makes perfect sense from both economic and political perspectives. Let’s start with the economic perspective. Economics is primarily concerned with two issues, efficiency and equity (fairness). The primary economic argument against higher taxes is that they lead people to make less optimal choices, perhaps even discouraging socially beneficial activities that we otherwise want to encourage. Yet, smoking is an activity that we actually want to discourage.  It imposes high social costs, and it is an addiction that most smokers acquired before adulthood, would prefer not to have acquired, and would like to quit. A tobacco tax will reduce the number of new smokers and the number of cigarettes consumed by those who already smoke.

Big tobacco (Altria, Reynolds American, Lorillard, and Imperial Tobacco have 95 percent of the U.S. market) can be expected to object that a tobacco tax is unfair because it hits low-income Americans hardest. Their concern for the plight of the poor would be touching if they evinced any concern that their products unfairly increase disease and death among low-income Americans and their children (from secondhand smoke). A tobacco tax will reduce smoking and improve health most for the lowest income Americans because their smoking behavior is more price sensitive than that of higher income smokers.  To this we can add that high-quality pre-K produces its greatest benefits for children from lower-income families, though all children will benefit.

Another objection opponents have already raised to the tobacco tax is that because it will reduce smoking the revenue generated will decline over time. Thus, they say it is not suitable as a permanent funding source for pre-K. Apparently, they have not read the President’s plan or his budget.  The President does not propose perpetual federal funding, and the funding formula decreases the federal match gradually over time.  In this respect, a tobacco tax is a perfect match for the pre-K proposal.

Turning to the political perspective, one advantage of this proposal is that the financing mechanism makes no new enemies. Cigarette makers will oppose pre-K for all no matter how it is funded. Multiple studies find that quality pre-K reduces the likelihood that people take up smoking. From the industry perspective it is a tobacco control program, and big tobacco relentlessly works to erode public funding for such programs. At the same time, the proposal will enlist another set of allies–those committed to reducing tobacco addiction and the disease and death it causes. They will have two reasons to support the pre-K proposal because both quality pre-K and the tax will reduce smoking.

In the current political environment, some may oppose the proposal because they oppose any tax increase at all.  For those truly committed to limited government and deficit reduction, I have a modest suggestion. Cut welfare for agribusiness, aka farm subsidies, which are inefficient and unfair. Farm subsidies cost taxpayers $10 to $15 billion annually, even though farm income reached all time highs in the last two years. Let the free market operate in agriculture, and split the savings 50-50 between deficit reduction and the President’s pre-K proposal (which, by the way, will eventually start contributing to deficit reduction on its own).  Anyone who says they favor less government intrusion into the market and smaller deficits, but is unwilling to cut farm subsidies, doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Returning to the tobacco tax, it will, without a doubt, require a fight. Big tobacco will use direct lobbying, publicity campaigns, AstroTurf (artificial grassroots front groups), and alliances with think tanks and membership organizations.   They can be expected to try to convince unions to oppose the tax because it is regressive and police organizations to oppose it because it will increase illegal sales (pay no attention to who would have to collude in supplying tobacco products to the underground economy).

Supporters of the proposal should be prepared to build a coalition with anti-tobacco groups as well as businesses that will benefit from lower health care costs and more productive future employees, unions with members who will benefit from better health and access to high-quality pre-K, advocates for lower income children and their families including minorities who have the least access to high-quality pre-K. They might even organize consumer and investor boycotts of tobacco companies who oppose the plan. Altria, which has by far the largest market share for cigarettes, also has economic stakes in beer and wine, allowing even nonsmokers to participate in an effective consumer boycott. Big tobacco has lost this battle before. California provides a battle plan that, when suitably tweaked for a national campaign, can produce another win for pre-K.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal and is in response to the post “‘Sin Tax’ for Pre-Schoolers” by Fawn Johnson.


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.


Clearing the Way for Better Benefit-Cost Analyses

December 23, 2009

Benefit-cost analyses (BCA) — quantifying benefits of interventions, often expressing them in dollars returned per dollar invested — are key drivers of early education policy. They’re widely consulted when early education decisions are debated, but few who use them have much in the way of an understanding of how they come about. A booklet just off the press from the National Research Council goes a long way toward explaining the issues.

Strengthening Benefit-Cost Analysis for Early Childhood Interventions is a summary of a March 2009 workshop where leading practitioners of the discipline, including NIEER Co-Director Steve Barnett, talked about the challenges of generating dependable BCAs and ways to strengthen them. Their discussions provide a window on the science — and art — of conducting BCAs. Here are some key issues:

• BCAs depend on rigorous program evaluations. Of course, the gold standard in rigor is the randomized controlled trial — a method that is not always available. Complicating matters is the fact that the control condition against which interventions are evaluated are seldom composed of kids who had no exposure to early childhood programs. These days, most kids in the general population attend a program of some type. These issues weren’t much of a factor in the era of the Perry Preschool Program — something that makes data from that era all the more valuable.

• Arriving at true program costs is a challenge. Budget figures gathered in advance of program implementation often don’t portray true costs and total costs may not be completely accounted for, particularly when programs involve matching or braided funding. Analysts often end up estimating cost using comparable market costs or deriving other measures such as “shadow prices.” For example, in many developing economies observed wage rates overstate the true marginal cost of labor while observed interest rates understate the true cost of capital. Accurate estimation of cost is one of the most neglected aspects of this work. All too often, cost receives little attention and the cost estimate used has no scientific basis at all. Yet, cost is just as important for arriving at a good decision as benefit.

• Assessing program value is arguably the area where researchers have the most work cut out for them. Some benefits of programs like greater socio-emotional development or better health behaviors are inherently more difficult to put a value on and have probably been under-estimated in the past. Manifestations of their value often don’t occur for years, even decades, in the future. In lieu of very long-term studies we must build on other research, linking pre-K to outcomes—grade retention, behavior problems, achievement, dropout—that other studies in turn link with later education, earnings and employment, mental and physical health, crime, and civic participation.

• Maintaining the integrity of study samples and having robust data available for long-term studies is a growing concern due to degradation of contact information and the growth of privacy concerns.

The presenters pointed to work done in other fields that has the potential to inform BCAs in early childhood education. In health economics, for instance, analysts are measuring the quality and length of lives saved by a health intervention in terms of a Quality Adjusted Life Year (QALY). Researchers now estimate the value of detecting and medically treating lead poisoning at $1,300 per QALY gained. When they factored in the additional cost savings from remedial education not needed when lead poisoning is prevented, they found the intervention was a sound investment.

Other recommendations the group discussed include more standardization of economic measures such as discount rates that analysts apply over time and developing more standardized practices for research procedures in the field.


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