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Study Challenges Received Wisdom in Early-Childhood Debates

A study released this month by the National Bureau of Economics Research challenges two key ideas in the current policy discussions around early-childhood education: James Heckman's argument that early (birth-to-5) investments produce the greatest payoff; and the argument made by some, including the Heritage Foundation, that early intervention has no long-term impact.

In the NBER paper, researchers linked data on children in Tennessee's Project Star (which randomly assigned children to smaller classes in grades K through 3) to their later enrollment and persistence in college, using National Student Clearinghouse data. The researchers found that children enrolled in smaller classes in the early grades showed a bump in test scores, which later faded out. However, years later, those same children were more likely to attend college and to persist there.

The effects were more pronounced for children at greater disadvantage based on income and race. As the paper notes, "Short-term gains in cognitive test scores are predictive of long-term benefits." And test-score gains children made after grade 3 were less predictive of their college entrance and enrollment.

Yet at the same time, the researchers also compared the costs of creating smaller early elementary classes with other interventions. Such strategies ranged from Head Start and intensive demonstration preschool efforts (Abecedarian and Perry Preschool) to later-life strategies, like Upward Bound and offers of financial aid. "We conclude that early investments are no more cost-effective than later investments in boosting adult educational attainment," the study said.

The researchers acknowledge their work looks very narrowly at a specific intervention (small class size) and its effect on a specific later-life outcome (college entrance and persistence).

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