According to Nobel Laureate Economist James Heckman, while it is tempting to increase access to as many disadvantaged children as possible, providing access to quality will deliver the best short-and long-term return on investment. In this blog post, he provides his rationale for asserting that program quality is key for actualizing the promise early childhood education has for elevating the lives of disadvantaged children and their families.
The new Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) funding represents an enormous opportunity to improve access to and quality of child care for infants, toddlers, their families, and the teachers and programs that work with them. With funding from the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, a project of the JB and MK Pritzker Family Foundation, the BUILD Initiative is organizing a series of webinars and blogs in partnership with ZERO TO THREE and the Center for Law and Social Policy for state policy leaders, decision makers and advocates.
By James J. Heckman, Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development at the University of Chicago.
Disadvantaged children who receive quality early childhood development have much better education, employment, social and health outcomes as adults. Fortunately, last year Congress increased funding for Child Care and Development Block Grants (CCDBG) that help states provide children from low-income families with access to early care and education. While it is tempting to increase access to as many disadvantaged children as possible, providing access to quality will deliver the best short- and long-term return on investment.
Program quality is key for actualizing the promise early childhood education has for elevating the lives of disadvantaged children and their families. At its most simplistic, quality is defined as starting at birth, developing the whole child physically, intellectually and emotionally through age five and integrating education for both children and parents into caregiving. The baseline of quality is not a safe place where children are looked after while their parents work. Quality is children being individually known, nurtured and intentionally developed by caregivers and educators.
Developed in the 1970’s, the well-known Abecedarian Preschool Project in North Carolina illuminates the standards for quality care and outcomes.
Abecedarian started at 8 weeks of age and provided comprehensive parental education, early health, nutrition and learning up to age five for children from low-income families. Children were cared for by highly trained lead educators and well-trained, supervised teachers and caregivers. Parents had the benefit of reliable care during the work week, allowing mothers to enter into the workforce, build skills and careers and move toward self-sufficiency.
Our cost benefit analysis shows that Abecedarian delivered significant economic, social and health outcomes. After over 35 years of follow-up study on the treatment and control groups, Abecedarian is the only early childhood program that permanently raised IQ and instilled greater social and emotional skills.
The quality care delivered by Abecedarian also had a strong economic effect on mothers and the resources they had to provide for their children. Child care allowed many mothers to seek education and full-time employment, and they subsequently outperformed their peers economically. In fact, the economic gains made by mothers over the five years of the program pay for the entire cost of the program. Policymakers who seek to move families from welfare to work should take heed of the benefits reliable, high-quality child care provide to two generations.
Abecedarian shows that the return on investment in quality is exponentially higher than the costs. The total return on investment in the program was 13% for each dollar invested, paying for the program many times over.
Those who feel present practicalities outweigh future gains should pay careful attention to our analysis of gender benefits in Abecedarian, which illuminates the danger of providing low-quality care, especially to boys. Boys who received low-quality care did poorly in school and life, achieving significantly less than those in the Abecedarian program. Girls tend to be more resilient early and later in life; however, research shows that all children do better in many dimensions of life when they receive quality early childhood development.
It makes economic sense to provide greater access to quality early care and education for disadvantaged children. When we do, we get significant returns in better education, health, social and economic productivity that more than pay for the cost of such programs. Policymakers who ignore this research will pay the higher costs of betting on the cheap.
James J. Heckman is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development at the University of Chicago, a Nobel Laureate in economics and an expert in the economics of human development.
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