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New study: Quality birth-to-five programs for at-risk kids pay off

In his widely cited 2009 study, Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman documented a 7 to 10 percent annual return on investments in quality preschool programs for 3-and 4-year-olds. In a study released today, Heckman makes an even more compelling economic argument for programs that begin at birth.

Heckman and his team found high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13 percent per-child, per-year return on investment through reduced crime and health costs and better outcomes in education, civic engagement and employment.

In their study, “The Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program,” Heckman and colleagues from the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center followed 121 children in two high-quality North Carolina child care programs through age 35 to quantify the impact of early learning.

“We are talking about 50 weeks a year for the first 5 years, 8 to 9 hours a day, in terms of engagement of the child,” said Heckman in a press call with reporters.

“Not only did this program provide high-quality child care from the earliest years, it provides a form of subsidy for women to go back to the workplace. It has a two-generation impact," he said. "It lets women complete more education and gain more workplace skills. And it also turns out to improve the lives of their children. The kids are actually enriched.”

The researchers analyzed the effects of two similar, randomized-controlled preschool experiments in North Carolina in the 1970’s: The Carolina Abecedarian Project and the Carolina Approach to Responsive Education. The programs provided comprehensive developmental resources to disadvantaged African-American children from birth to age five, including nutrition, access to healthcare and early learning. Children were randomly assigned into either the treatment group or a control group that had access to alternatives such as lower quality center-based care or in-home care.

The study collected data on cognitive and socio-emotional skills, education, and family economic characteristics from the participants annually through age 8 and then at ages 12, 15, 21, and 30. There was a full medical survey at age 35 and a review of any criminal activity.

While state-funded pre-kindergartens target 4-year-olds, the programs in the study enrolled infants at 8 weeks old when “human skills are most fluid,” said Heckman. That early exposure to quality child care and engaging caregivers paid off with boost in IQ that followed children into adulthood.

“We found most of the growth in IQ in terms of cognitive skills has taken place by age 3,” said Heckman.

Research on pre-k programs, including his own study of the Perry Preschool Project, didn't find lasting improvements in IQ, said Heckman. But the IQ and cognitive gains to the children who began the North Carolina programs as infants endured through the final IQ testing at age 21.

The takeaway on IQ enhancement: “The sooner the better, the earlier the better,” said Heckman. “That lasting effect in cognition, combined with increased social and emotional skills that are known to drive achievement, were factors in better outcomes and returns on investment.”

In response to questions on costs of birth to five programs, Heckman said such program are expensive  — about $18,500 per year per child  — but so are many public projects, such as the Hoover Dam and the U.S. highway system. No one faults spending on the dam or the highways because of the clear benefits, he said.

Heckman said it's important to also consider the benefits of public investments in early care, citing improved social mobility and economic opportunities, increased social engagement and reductions in healthcare costs and crime.

"This is very strong evidence for supporting this kind of program going forward," he said. “The data speaks for itself. Investing in the continuum of learning from birth to age 5 not only impacts each child, but it also strengthens our country’s workforce today and prepares future generations to be competitive in the global economy tomorrow.”

Asked to define quality child care, Heckman said the key was not whether caregivers held college degrees but whether they were trained to engage with the children and their parents. "Parents are the key," he said. "These programs teach parents about giving individual attention to the child; they teach the parent the value of one-to-one interaction.”

Effective caregivers explain their approach as doing for the children in their care what they did for their own children, said Heckman. "The scarce resource here is mother love. These are things that don't require a vast amount of money, per say; they do require human empathy. It is not a question of getting a Ph.D. in child development or low-teacher pupil ratios. Think of it as a question of getting human empathy."

An interesting finding in Heckman’s study that echoes other research: Quality child care and engagement matter more for boys than girls. Girls appear to have greater resiliency so they are less affected by tenuous environments than boys.

As a group, girls develop more quickly than boys and have greater language and capacity for self-control by age 3 and 4, said Heckman. Boys pay a greater price for being in inferior child care and suffer more lasting consequences.

Heckman's study has yet to be peer-reviewed.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.