Ezra Klein, who blogs for the American Prospect, chides liberals for not getting behind universal prekindergarten. He says research shows universal prekindergarten is “tremendously cost effective” and produces “massive educational benefits.” He bolsters his case with a link to the well-known William Gormley study of the universal program in Oklahoma. Gormley’s study does, indeed, show positive results from the program but the biggest gains were made by Latino children learning English. To quote Gormley: “Preliminary results from a growing body of research on the
effects of pre-K programs are encouraging, but not entirely con-
vincing.” He also cites Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman as supporting universal prekindergarten. Heckman, however, is something of a thorn in the side of supporters of universal programs because he actually says the higher payoff comes from targeted programs: “There are many reasons why investing in disadvantaged young children has a high economic return. Early interventions for disadvantaged children promote schooling, raise the quality of the work force, enhance the productivity of schools, and reduce crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency. They raise earnings and promote social attachment. Focusing solely on earnings gains, returns to dollars invested are as high as 15% to 17%.”
Klein knows this but has ignored the distinction in the past as well.
While heading out of Chicago Saturday I saw that the early Sunday edition (at the L.A. Times we called this the “bulldog” edition) had a big front page spread delving into scientific, political, and economic issues related to how best to invest in early childhood education. It was an excellent piece that focused on how early some form of early education outside the home should begin. Brain research was cited but the piece also explored the competing interests and tradeoffs involved in early education policy. It was comprehensive, nuanced, authoritative, and balanced. Readers would come away knowing the parameters of key debates on early ed. Journalists should look to it as a model.
Leave it to the Wall Street Journal to (subscription required) label the national trend toward expanded public spending on pre-kindergarten for what it is: “one of the most significant expansions in public education in the 90 years since World War I, when kindergarten first became standard in American schools.” The Journal’s front page article Thursday did what the paper does so nicely: allow a reader who hasn’t been following a developing trend to drop in and get a good sense of who the players are, why they’re doing what they’re doing, the obstacles, and controversies, and what lies ahead. The story notes, for example, that not everyone is on board with the push for “universal” public preschool. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, for example, warns about overdoing preschool and says that “scarce resources should be directed to the problem areas.” Mr. Murdoch, don’t mess with success, ok?
Full disclosure: the Journal article describes the important role The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Trusts’ director of education, Susan Urahn, have played in fueling the national movement to expand public spending on preschool. The article also mentions that the Hechinger Institute is a grantee, and that our role is to help journalists become knowledgeable about the issues surrounding pre-k. As I always say, though, we’re not advocates for anything other than good journalism about education.
Joel Waldfogel, a business prof at the Wharton School, bases a commentary on Slate on the James Heckman/Dmitri Masterov analysis of the economic returns of preschool from high quality programs serving the disadvantaged. He says government programs are needed to make up for the weakness of many families, which makes them unable to function as caregivers and nurturers of children. He concludes:
A sales problem remains: These programs invade the traditional province of the family, and in Heckman and Masterov’s conception, they would target disadvantaged populations that are disproportionately minority. Wanted: a credible and sympathetic pitchman. Paging Barack Obama
Obama, the Illinois Senator running for president, has yet to announce his position on expanding the federal role in pre-kindergarten. Hilary Clinton, the New York Senator and presidential candidate, though, supports phasing in a $10 billion federal fund to match new state investments in high quality preschool.
All Gregory Mankiw, former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, did was post on his blog the headline “Preschool Pays” and link to the Joel Waldfogel Slate entry mentioned just above. That touched off a flurry of comments, pro and con. Many of the comments wrestle with the economic analyses themselves, especially what can be concluded from the Perry Preschool study of the effects of high quality preschool designed to serve the most disadvantaged. But some reflect the fears referenced by Waldfogel, that good quality voluntary preschool undermines the family and replaces parents with “government agents.” (One has to think that if preschool teachers really were government agents they’d be earning a lot more money!).
In any case, I urge economists or journalists who are examining the economic returns of investing in preschool to start with the superb “Dollars and Sense” report to gain perspective. Although put out by a group that advocates for universal preschool, the report examines the strengths and weaknesses and generalizability of various analyses of economic returns from preschool. It also acknowledges the bias of Pre-K Now, which issued the report.
The Economic Policy Institute’s report “Enriching Children, Enriching the Nation” got lots of ink in papers around the country. Every story I read expressed no skepticism about the state-by-state number crunching, which reported enormous returns from public spending on preschool. Andrew Leonard in a piece on Salon acknowledged up front that he supports public spending to provide high quality preschool to disadvantaged three-to-five year olds. But he bristles a bit at analysis by University of Chicago Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman that spending on pre-kindergarten will create a stronger, more talented, more effective work force. Leonard says public spending on preschool is a good thing, whether it produces economic gains or not.” Investing in young kids would be good for them, even if it didn’t make society more productive. And that should be reason enough to do it.”
Heckman’s 98-page report is here. Unlike the EPI analysis, Heckman argues that providing preschool to the disadvantaged produces the greatest returns and poses no tradeoff. But investing public money on programs for higher income kids makes less sense.