People Don’t Always Like Economists, But Economists Love Early Childhood Education

Written by: Jessica Landgraf

Primary Source:   Green & Write, December 13, 2016

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Say what you will about the involvement of economists in education reform, but what economics has done to bring early childhood education and development into the spotlight is monumental. Given the high cost of childcare, it takes talking money on a national scale to get government talking about why they should care. Thanks to the early work of economists like Lawrence Schweinhart, Frances Campbell, James Heckman, and others, the individual and collective importance of quality early childhood care and education has found validation.

On Monday, Heckman and his colleagues showed once again that providing early childhood care and education to low-income children can have significant implications for their futures and the future of the country as a whole.

This new paper (a summary of which can be found here) analyzed the Carolina Abecedarian Project (ABC) and the Carolina Approach to Responsive Education (CARE). These two projects were consecutive and identical longitudinal studies that launched in the 1970s. The studies evaluated the effects of early childhood interventions on high-risk participants through randomized assignment in North Carolina. The difference between these projects and the Perry Preschool Project done by Schweinhart in the 1960s (and discussed previously on this blog) is that ABC and CARE started with children at birth. Dr. Heckman has long supported the notion that the earlier interventions are started with at-risk children, the more substantial the benefits will be. This new paper brings that idea back into the spotlight, with findings such as an astounding 13% annual return on investment for the ABC and CARE projects. This stands in contrast to the 7-10% return on investment for programs that serve 3-4 year olds.

Key benefits that ABC and CARE participants included:

  • Increased life-cycle income
  • Lower rates of special education participation
  • Higher educational achievement
  • Increased health-related quality of life
  • Increased labor participation and earnings for mothers of ABC and CARE participants.

For more, you can read an NPR interview with Dr. Heckman here.

What This Means for Policy

Head Start in particular, should be bolstered by these newest findings. Early Head Start, which begins services for low-income families during pregnancy, should be of particular concern for the national government now. In addition, with the recent update to the Head Start Program Performance Standards this is an ideal time for participating programs to evaluate their programs against the ABC and CARE programs.

With the New Year within view, and a new president poised to take the reins, this economic assessment of the value of early childhood education and care may have just the right appeal for policymakers. For those of us that have known these benefits intuitively, let’s hope that the addition of this paper and the clout that Dr. Heckman carries can continue to move our country in the right direction.

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