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Value of Early Education? What's the Bottom Line?

As advocates gear up to make the case for state and federal spending on early childhood education, I thought it was worth a quick review of the leading two positions on the value of early learning.

While much ado has been made of the return on investment early childhood education can offer in terms of reduced crime, increased employment, and other positive outcomes later in life, recent research adds a note of skepticism about these claims.

For example, the January issue of Educational Policy features an article by New York University's Amy Lowenstein that analyzes research done on the long-term impact of early childhood education. (You can view the abstract without a password, and it is an unusually clear abstract for a journal.)

Lowenstein's analysis shows that the studies touting impressive long-term benefits were done with small sample sizes in high-quality programs not likely to represent the average of care, even for middle-class families. Meanwhile, more recent studies with larger sample sizes show that the effects of early childhood education tend to fade out over time.

"A balanced review of the literature suggests that high-quality ECE benefits children's development in the short term, but cannot be expected to transform children's lives in the long run in the absence of additional educational and social supports," Lowenstein writes.

In December, I put this very question to James Heckman, the Nobel-laureate economist who now advocates for public early childhood spending as a prudent move in tough budgetary times. (Look here for the powerpoint of his December lecture in Chicago.) While he agreed that studies do show academic dropoff, other research shows the social habits children learn through early education—how to get along, how to stick to a task—do not fade over time. Heckman argues it is these "soft skills" that make a long-term, sustained benefit for children, especially children in poverty.

Secondly, he agreed entirely with those who argue that the academic benefits of early education won't persist unless children enter good K-12 schools. If they don't continue to receive strong instruction, it's common sense that their academic gains will fade over time. So perhaps that's the common ground that research stands on, and it makes a good case for the emerging efforts to build bridges between pre-K policy and practice and the K-12 system.

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