$7 in Savings for $1 in Early Childhood?

Governor Sebelius repeated the “spend $1 to save $7” argument for taxpayer funded pre-K programs in this last weekend’s Wichita Eagle. (Early Childhood Needs Early Commitment, May 27)
First, the governor’s essay is printed below, followed by an evaluation of the supporting number.

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All Americans know the power of education to change lives and expand opportunities. That’s why the guarantee of a quality public education has always been such an integral part of our nation’s promise to its young people, and why we’re seeing states making significant new commitments to K-12 schools.

But too many children are entering those schools without the basic skills they need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond, which is why we need a national commitment to early learning efforts such as prekindergarten.

This national problem was brought home to state policymakers by a recent survey of Kansas teachers that revealed that less than half of children start kindergarten fully ready to learn. But this isn’t just an issue here — it’s a national problem.

Starting off school behind means many of these children stay behind throughout their school lives and into adulthood, meaning they may never reach their full potential. This costs states money in terms of spending on remedial classes and programs, which are less effective and cost-efficient than early learning efforts.

There are social costs as well, especially in reduced wages for workers who aren’t ultimately as successful as they would have been had they been able to take advantage of the full opportunities of their education.

For every dollar we invest in early childhood education, we can save seven future dollars by having fewer juvenile offenders in our prisons, fewer Americans on public assistance and a work force more nimble and prepared for an ever-changing world.

Ninety percent of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of 5, and children who attend early childhood programs are far more likely to enter kindergarten ready to learn, read at an appropriate grade level and go on to graduate from high school.

In 2006, Kansas legislators supported my recommendation to increase funding for early childhood education, including the creation of pre-K pilot projects around our state. This year, they again answered my call, committing an additional $5.1 million to early learning.

These efforts will have significant and lasting benefits in Kansas, just as similar efforts can have a positive impact on our nation. That’s why 29 governors proposed increased support for pre-K and other early learning efforts this year, and why the nation’s governors call on Congress and the president to work with us to bring early learning opportunities to all young Americans.

We need to bring together policymakers, educators, early learning professionals and parents to ensure that all children have the education needed to achieve their full potential.

We must make a national commitment to provide all children with access to quality early learning opportunities, for their sake and for the sake of our nation’s long-term prosperity.

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There are several objections to the arguments raised in the governor’s essay. But let’s go straight to the $7 figure, since that makes the proposal for taxpayer-funded day care seem fiscally sensible.

Darcy Olsen, an independent expert on the subject, has pointed out that the benefits of early childhood education are often oversold. One section of her white paper, Assessing Proposals for Preschool and Kindergarten, is worth quoting at length:

The Perry Preschool Project was a longitudinal experiment designed to study the effects of early intervention on disadvantaged children. It was the early intervention program most frequently cited in research reviews between 1983 and 1997, and is heavily cited in the literature and legislation in support of universal preschool.[1]

Investigators at the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Michigan, conducted the experiment from 1962 to 1965. The investigators reported their most recent findings in “Lifetime Effects: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study through Age 40.”[2] The project was an intervention program for three- and four-year-olds deemed at risk for “retarded intellectual functioning and eventual school failure.”[3] It involved either one or two years of half-day preschool for seven months each year and periodic home visits. One hundred twenty-three children participated, 58 children in the experimental group and 65 in the control group. All of the children were of low socioeconomic status and had IQs in the range of 70 to 85.[4] The study is frequently cited because it is the longest running study of any preschool intervention program.

Analyses show that students who participated in the preschool program fared better over the long term on a variety of educational and social measures than did children in the control group. Lawrence J. Schweinhart, now president of the High/Scope Foundation, wrote, “Program participation had positive effects on adult crime, earnings,

wealth, welfare dependence, and commitment to marriage.”[5] On the basis of those findings, Schweinhart concluded, “The program provided taxpayers a return on investment of $7.16 on the dollar.”[6] Advocates rely heavily on that figure to make their case that preschool is an investment that more than pays for itself in the long term.

The High/Scope researchers’ interpretation of the long-term findings is that the preschool program prepared children for kindergarten, which resulted in a more positive reaction by kindergarten teachers that, in turn, caused the children to have a stronger commitment to school. That is sometimes called the snowball hypothesis. Three researchers from Yale University explain,

The snowball hypothesis presumes that children who attend quality intervention programs are better prepared socially and academically when they begin school. This enables them to interact positively with their teachers, who in turn relate positively to them, and this tone of adult-child relationships continues in progressive years of school.[7]

Others posit that the home visitation component was largely responsible for the results. They hypothesize that people became more effective parents as a result of their involvement in the program. Experiences such as building relationships with teachers may help parents establish a more supportive home environment and effective “home-school linkages.”[8] At any rate, there is no consensus on which components of the program were responsible for the children’s gains. The critical question remains: how could a one- or two-year half-day preschool program produce such outstanding results?

The High/Scope researchers have been subject to heavy criticism for using nonstandard significance levels. If standard significance levels are used, many of the most “significant” differences between the experimental and control groups disappear.[9] Psychology professor Charles Locurto of the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts has argued that the Perry results are less remarkable when all findings—not just those that favor Perry—are considered.

Locurto writes,

We might marry the large number of nonsignificant and unfavorable findings into a different picture of the Perry Project’s outcomes. We might argue that preschool training resulted in no differences in school motivation or school potential at the time of school entry, no lasting changes in IQ or achievement test performance….There were no differences in their average grades as compared to former control-group children, in their personal satisfaction with their school performance or in their self-esteem. Their parents were no more likely to talk with teachers about school work or to attend school activities and functions than control-group parents. Preschool children were more likely to have been placed in remedial education. By age 19, they were unemployed at a rate equal to that of their control-group counterparts.[10]

More important, questions have been raised concerning the Perry sample and methodology. According to Head Start co-founder and Sterling Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University, Ed Zigler,

[The Perry sample] was not only nonrepresentative of children in general; there is some doubt that it was representative of even the bulk of economically disadvantaged children . . . The Perry Project poses a number of methodological difficulties . . . Children had to have a parent at home during the day, resulting in a significant difference between control and intervention groups on the variable of maternal employment . . . [and] assignment to experimental and control groups was not wholly random.[11]

Even if one believes the Perry findings are valid for disadvantaged children, they form a slippery basis for universal preschool, and caution is in order. First, in more than 40 years, no other program or study has produced results as dramatic as those found for Perry.[12] That suggests that there may have been unique conditions at the Perry Preschool that simply cannot be duplicated. As a general principle, science requires an experiment to be replicable before it is considered valid. Certainly caution is in order when it comes to applying findings to millions of children.

Second, benefits were obtained only for severely disadvantaged children at risk of “retarded intellectual functioning.” It is simply inappropriate to generalize the effects of Perry to mainstream children. This is particularly important given the research that shows some early education programs do not always benefit—and may even be harmful to—mainstream children.

Third, Perry children may have outperformed children in the control group, but they still fared poorly compared with mainstream children. For example, nearly one-third of children participating in the intensive program dropped out of high school; nearly one-third of the children were arrested; and three of five participating children received welfare assistance as adults.[13] That has led many researchers to be more level-headed about the likely effects of early intervention: “Policymakers should not assume that the widespread enrollment of low-income children and families in early childhood programs will enable children living in poverty to perform later in school and life at the levels reached by more advantaged [mainstream] children.”[14]

Finally, Perry differed significantly from regular preschool programs or what we could expect to see in a universal preschool program in Arizona. The fact that no other preschool program has ever produced results akin to Perry may be testament to that.


[1] Reynolds et al., 8.

[2] Lawrence J. Schweinhart, “The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40,” High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. See http://www.highscope.org/welcome.asp for official publication date.

[3] Zigler, Taussig, and Black, 1000.

[4] For a complete program description, see Lawrence Schweinhart and David Weikart, “The Effects of the Perry Preschool Program on Youths through Age 15: A Summary,” in the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, As the Twig Is Bent–Lasting Effects of Preschool Programs (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1983): 71–81.

[5] Lawrence J. Schweinhart, “Lasting Benefits of Preschool Programs,” ERIC Digest EDO–PS–94–2 (January 1994).

[6] Lawrence J. Schweinhart, Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study through Age 27 (Ypsilante, Mich.: High/Scope Press, 1993): 55; and Schweinhart, “Lasting Benefits of Preschool Programs,” 2.

[7] Zigler, Taussig, and Black, 1002.

[8] Ibid., 1000.

[9] Charles Locurto, “Beyond IQ in Preschool Programs?” Intelligence 15 (1991): 299–305.

[10] Ibid., 303–304.

[11] Edward F. Zigler, “Formal Schooling for Four-Year-Olds? No,” in Early Schooling: The National Debate, Sharon L. Kagan and Edward F. Zigler eds. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 1987): 30–31.

[12] Ron Haskins, “Beyond Metaphor: The Efficacy of Early Childhood Education,” American Psychologist 44, no. 2 (February 1989): 279.

[13] Schweinhart, Significant Benefits, 59, 86, 106.

[14] Deanna S. Gomby et al., “Long-Term Outcomes of Early Childhood Programs: Analysis and Recommendations,” in The Future of Children 5, no. 3 (Winter 1995): 14.

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