Carl Bialik examines the way numbers are used, and abused.
My print column examines the economic argument made by proponents of expanding early-childhood education in the U.S.: that it more than pays for itself in economic returns, in the form of better employment prospects for participants and lower costs in crime and social programs for society.
Economic analysis isn’t the only way to evaluate such programs, which also should demonstrate, for instance, whether they are adequately preparing children for kindergarten and beyond. But researchers say that economic analysis is necessary because early education is competing with other programs for scarce public funds. “Morally the question is whether we are doing right by the youngest generation,” said Megan Gunnar, professor of child development at the University of Minnesota. “But we do need to put that in economic terms if we are competing against all the other goods that society has to determine to use this money on.”
“The economic analysis helps provide tangibility to investments in early-childhood education,” said Rob Grunewald, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “As a society we can pay less in upfront prevention, or pay more years later in attempts at remediation.” Economic analysis, he added, “does put tangibility to the benefits we see,” even if “certainly there is a coldness to it.”
Some critics of expanding preschool say that the analyses put too much faith in the representativeness of small-scale programs, such as one begun a half-century ago in Ypsilanti, Mich., that is often cited for its large economic benefits. “To generalize these costs and benefits to the typical state pre-kindergarten program is akin to suggesting that the effectiveness of a diet program advertised on late-night cable television is the same as what has been demonstrated in a clinical trial of bariatric surgery,” said Grover Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
“Policymakers and advocates often assume that a social program that is effective in one setting will automatically produce the same results in other settings,” said David B. Muhlhausen, a research fellow in empirical policy analysis at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “This assumption often has little merit.”
For instance, Muhlhausen said, research studies typically focus on programs that “are carefully monitored to ensure that the participants receive the intended level of treatment. In the real world, program conditions are often much less than optimal.”
Some education researchers respond that preschool is far from understudied. “This isn’t something that’s recent,” said Craig Ramey, professor of psychology at Virginia Tech. “There’s a good half-century of very detailed scientific research.”
Educational programs for children ages three and four have been more researched “than any other age period in the first decade of life,” said Arthur Reynolds, professor of childhood development at the University of Minnesota. “There’s been a lot more research than the field has been given credit for. It probably exceeds any other social program out there.”
Research in the field has multiplied despite some inherent challenges. For instance, since early results suggest that early education can be enormously beneficial, “It wouldn’t be ethical to do a random assignment of these kids,” splitting them randomly into preschool and non-preschool groups. In the same way, no cigarette researcher could randomly assign research subjects to smoking and nonsmoking groups, Reynolds points out, yet there is no controversy around the link between smoking and ill health.
Another challenge: Counting the economic benefits involves decades of follow-ups. “Obviously, therefore, the proof will come years down the road,” said Geoffrey A. Nagle, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Tulane University. “So it is a Catch-22. If the results are good but then discounted because the intervention happened years earlier, then how can the early-childhood programs ever show their value?”
Nagle added that other programs aren’t held to the same standard: For instance, kindergarten-through-12th-grade public education isn’t restricted to those students whom research shows will benefit the most from school. “The vast majority of funded efforts out there do not have any longitudinal data, based on experimental design, and that have been replicated,” Nagle said.
Advocates of preschool expansion also point out that the studies of economic benefit get a boost from brain studies showing the preschool years are the most fruitful for development, and from studies showing students coming out of preschool are better prepared than their peers. The dovetailing of findings from different studies backing preschool is more encouraging than evidence that an approach from out of left field is best for kids.
“All of this research is supported by the basic principles of child development,” Grunewald said. “A child’s quality of life and the contributions that child makes to society as an adult can be traced to his or her first years of life.”
As early-education programs expand, researchers should consider following the lead of drug researchers, said William Trochim, professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University. In medicine, researchers use multi-phase studies to ensure promising experimental results pass tests for safety and practicality. And they use meta-analyses, “which helps to assure that it has been tested in at least multiple differing settings, samples and times,” Trochim said.
Muhlhausen also called for expanded testing. “Nationally representative evaluations are the only way to assess the effectiveness of national programs,” he said.
Keeping close tabs on programs is critical to ensuring they can maintain their effectiveness after expanding, said Wynne E. Norton, assistant professor of health behavior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a researcher in translating theoretical research into practice. “Even when evidence-based programs have been developed and scaled-up, however, systems need to be in place to monitor and evaluate their outcomes and impact,” Norton said.
Nagle agreed that bigger preschool programs could fall short if they’re not implemented correctly. “All too often programs proven to be successful are changed before they are replicated although it still has the same name, or tries to follow the same model, but fidelity to the model is not the reality,” Nagle said. Cost-cutting efforts “may be changing the very pieces of the intervention that lead to success,” Nagle added. “We can’t get success on the cheap.”
Scott Hippert, president and chief executive of Parents as Teachers, a St. Louis nonprofit that operates parent-focused early-education programs in every U.S. state and seven other countries, said the exact amount of return on investment doesn’t particularly matter. “The point is that by investing dollars early, there is no doubt that quality early-childhood education pays great dividends down the road,” Hippert said.
By Carl Bialik
Source: Wall Street Journal - http://goo.gl/EHt8o