Quality Early Learning Programs Are Worth the Investment: Q&A with Dr. Steven Barnett

Barnett head shotThis is the fourth in our series of blogs on some of the latest issues in early childhood education, celebrating the release of our new and improved early childhood donor toolkit, Invest in a Strong Start for Children.

Dr. W. Steven Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and the Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. He is a leading authority on the economics of early childhood education, and has authored or co-authored over 200 publications in the field, including a landmark benefit-cost analysis of preschool education that turns 30 years old in 2015.

Question #1: In November of 2014, a group of more than 800 scholars (now over 1,200), yourself included, released a joint letter, expressing consensus on a number of research findings with regard to early childhood education. What was the impetus behind such an unusual joint statement?

Early childhood education has been rising on the public policy and philanthropic agendas, particularly as the nation has emerged from the Great Recession. Good decisions about investing in early education depend on good information. Yet it is clear that policymakers, would-be-donors, and the general public still lack accurate information about the benefits of investments in young children, including the characteristics of investments that have big impacts and high returns.

The purpose of this open letter was to provide a concise, easily understood summary of the evidence as well as an indication of widespread agreement within the research community on key facts and their implications for public policy. The research base summarized is extensive and very broad, encompassing studies from education, developmental psychology, neuroscience, medicine, economics, and other fields. The statement draws heavily upon a detailed review of the scientific basis for preschool policy jointly published by the Foundation for Child Development and a major scientific organization, the Society for Research in Child Development.1

Question #2: What does the consensus letter tell us?

The overall conclusion is that quality early childhood education programs produce better outcomes for children and are well worth the investment. The letter puts forward nine key points of agreement, as follows:

  1. Important contributors to the achievement gap and school failure experienced by far too many children are apparent well before children enter kindergarten. These problems are not limited to the poor and their costs are very high.
  2. The early education and childcare services that many parents can afford are not of good enough quality to appreciably affect early disparities in development. Inadequate quality is a problem for children from both middle- and lower-income families.
  3. Effective early education addresses the needs of the whole child and requires highly capable, adequately paid teachers supported in the continuous improvement of their teaching.
  4. Evidence-based health and parent engagement activities contribute to greater success.
  5. Quality programs can be brought to scale.Large-scale public preschool programs have produced substantial impacts on children’s early learning, socio-emotional development and health.
  6. Early childhood programs produce larger long-term impacts on life achievement than on tests. Studies often find some convergence in test scores between children who did and did not attend preschool after children enter school. Despite the convergence on tests, evidence points to important effects in other areas over time including: special education and grade retention, high school graduation, and earnings.
  7. Quality early learning can benefit middle-class children as well as disadvantaged children; typically developing children as well as children with special needs; and dual language learners as well as monolingual English speakers.
  8. Rigorous cost-benefit analyses show that the economic benefits of early childhood education outweigh the costs of providing access to quality programs for children from middle-income, as well as, lower-income families.
  9. Critics of greater investment ignore the full body of evidence often citing data out of context and cherry-picking findings. Existing research findings are sufficient to warrant greater investment in quality programs now.

Question #3: How can donors respond to this information?

One important role is to educate others. Simply getting the word out and helping the research community to inform other potential donors, policy makers, and the general public makes a valuable contribution.

Some individuals and foundations have chosen to invest directly. In many communities, public funds for early education are too limited to reach even low-income families. Donors have helped create mechanisms (scholarship programs, joint public-private sector funds, and social impact bonds, among others) that make it possible for children to attend quality preschool programs their families either can’t afford or which otherwise would not have sufficient space.

Other donors have invested in public information campaigns to produce better policies. The magnitude of the need for better quality early care far exceeds philanthropy’s capacity to directly fund services, leading some to focus on “steering, not rowing.” Of course, donors can do both, steering by example through funding high quality demonstration projects. However, care should be taken that public officials do not use philanthropy as an excuse not to invest public funds.

There is still a need for research. You can count on your fingers the number of sound economic analyses conducted on rigorous early childhood studies. Children, families, and the circumstances in which they live also change, so that there is ongoing need for new information to inform policy. And, as science advances, new knowledge generates new questions as well as answers. Current questions include the best approaches to educating young dual language learners to become fluent bilinguals and how to more successfully engage working parents of young children.

1 For more information, see: Yoshikawa, H., Weiland, C., Brooks-Gunn, J., Burchinal, M. R., Espinosa, L. M., Gormley, W. T., Ludwig, J., Magnuson, K., Phillips, D., & Zaslow, M. (2013). Investing in our future: The evidence base on preschool education. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Society for Research in Child Development and New York: Foundation for Child Development. The National Institute for Early Education Research website (nieer.org) provides data from an annual review of state preschool education policies as well as many policy briefs and longer reports on a wide range of specific topics. Examples include: the connection between early education and health, the contributions of early education to social and emotional development, disparities in access to quality early education, and the importance of good teachers.