Early Childhood

With Obama Bid to Expand Preschool, Expert Weighs In on Research

By Christina A. Samuels — February 15, 2013 3 min read
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When President Obama said during Tuesday’s State of the Union address that an investment of “one dollar in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on,” he was likely citing some of the research of James J. Heckman. A Nobel laureate in economics, Heckman has studied early childhood and is closely tied to the notion of high-quality preschool as an investment in the most disadvantaged youngsters that pays off in reduced crime, better health, better job prospects, and other societal benefits.

So he is understandably pleased that early-childhood programs are now getting a strong push from the White House, though the details remain fuzzy. In an interview, Heckman shared his thoughts about the benefits of preschool for the neediest youngsters, the importance of high-quality programs, concerns about studies that indicate that the academic effects of these programs “fade out,” and where the federal government should go next.

On concerns that long-term studies of preschool effectiveness have been focused on small, “boutique” and hard-to-replicate programs such as Perry Preschool in Michigan and Abecedarian Project in North Carolina: Heckman said that the small size of the samples in those studies actually would tend to make any effects small. But in these studies, the effects of early interventions were large and apparent. “I think the hints are that going to scale is wise, if we can do it well.”

On the importance and definition of “high-quality:” Heckman said that low-quality programs have been shown to have neutral or even harmful effects on a young child’s development. Some quality indicators are having well-trained educators working with small adult-child ratios--sometimes no more than six 3- to 4-year-olds per adult.

On the costs of the programs: Heckman said, “You can talk about the costs, but I’m an economist—it’s costly to build a Hoover dam, it’s costly to build a road, it’s costly to do research on building a more fuel-efficient automobile. The question is, how much is the return?” He added that the costs are not high “in terms of the opportunity costs of not doing the program.”

On Head Start “fade out:" Heckman said that some Head Start programs are likely not providing the kind of high-quality care that is best for the most disadvantaged kids. But he also notes that Head Start studies are likely measuring children who attended Head Start with children who attended another preschool or daycare program. Those control group children “didn’t sit in isolation, they went to other programs.” And those programs might have been better than or just as good as the local Head Start provider. He added that a Head Start model is not the only way to think of high-quality early-childhood education, nor should early-childhood experts think that they need to recreate a Perry Preschool-type program on a larger scale. It’s a good example of one type of program, “but they’re not the end of our thinking.”

Heckman mentioned the Harlem Children’s Zone, which integrates social and educational services, as one approach to early-childhood intervention that may be promising.

On the likelihood of passage: Heckman said that he’s no politician. Yet, he said that some money the government currently spends could be redirected (he held up the $1.6 billion JobCorps program as one where the return on investment is “zero.”)

“We know we’re in a stringent time with budgets,” Heckman said. “But we can still ask, ‘How do we spend the money we’re spending?’ ” That critical assessment has been lost, he said. “The real question is if we can afford not to do this if we think about the welfare of the country in the next 10 or 15 years.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.