The Sooner The Better

“The sooner the better” is the perfect tag line for early childhood education. There is no magic bullet to ensure a lifetime of self-fulfillment in personal and career terms. But rigorous research shows that high-quality early childhood education is an extraordinarily powerful means to promote continued success in school, in the workplace, and also in social and civic realms.

It may seem surprising, but the experiences of children in their early years have disproportionately large impacts relative to experiences during their school years and beyond. If children lag in those early years, chances are that they will never catch up. Remediation of deficiencies in learning of all types is far more difficult and expensive than learning early on. The good news is that high-quality programs focused on early childhood years can have powerful long-term impacts for all racial and economic groups across the country.

Professor Susanna Loeb at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, in collaboration with Daphna Bassok, wrote an extensive review covering studies on early childhood education and achievement gaps based on it. The White House issued a report last December that also summarizes research from a wide variety of studies, and includes proposed actions to meet national needs in this arena.

Perhaps the most often cited study is the HighScope Perry preschool experiment that assigned randomly 123 at-risk low income black students to either a control group or a high-quality, two year pre-school program. These students were followed from ages three through 50. The impact of the pre-school program was powerful. Of those who participated in the program, 65% graduated from high school compared to 45% in the control group. By age 40, the annual income of those who were in the program was $20,800 compared to $15,300 in the control group. As the Loeb and Bassok article states, the study showed that those in the program “were more likely to be employed, to raise their own children, to own a home or a car, and to be far less likely to experience arrests or utilize drugs.”

Another study examines kindergarten test scores to predict whether children will attend college (and the quality of the colleges if they do), the earnings of those children as young adults, and many other adult outcomes.

Research also shows that high-quality early childhood programs lead to income gains of 1/3 to 3.5 percent each year when the children are adults. That may not seem like much. But compounded, the higher earnings account for between $9,000 and over $30,000 when the program costs are subtracted. Viewed nationwide, if all families were able to enroll their children in pre-school programs at the same rate as high-income families do now, the total enrollment nationwide would increase by around 13 percent and would yield a present value of at least $4.8 billion – some estimates approximate this number as high as $16.1 billion – from the lifetime earnings per person after deducting the costs of the program. High-quality early childhood education programs provide long-term benefits that far outweigh the costs.

But there is more. Studies also shows that if children are enrolled in these programs, the overall economy will be boasted by a more skilled workforce with higher earnings. If all adults have a kick-start through high-quality early childhood education, our entire society benefits. Fewer people will need welfare support, crime rates decrease, and our population as a whole will be healthier.

High-quality early childhood education is not a magic bullet to ensure that those participating will be destined to be successful in and out of school for the rest of their lives. Lots of other factors have real impact. But the evidence is overwhelming that the social and economic benefits of high-quality early education for children are both substantial and lasting. And they benefit not just the children who participate, but also our society as a whole.

It is no surprise, therefore, that groups across the country have mobilized to promote high-quality early childhood education. They realize that programs too often serve high-income families, while low-income families are left out. Sadly, less than a third of all four-year old children have access to early childhood programs even though they exist in 40 states. Early Edge California is one organization that addresses the problem in our country’s largest state.

Many faith-based groups are also partnering with these organizations. One is Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, California, where Tom Ehrlich and his wife, Ellen are members. Congregation Beth Am has chosen high-quality early childhood education as the single Congregation-wide societal issue on which it focuses attention. Some congregants are volunteering in local classrooms with underprivileged students. Others are engaged in a program called “10 Books A Home,” through which they bring books and reading to the homes of disadvantaged children. And some are focused on advocacy at the local, state, and national levels to bring more support to high-quality early childhood education.

The message should be clear. Wise investments in high-quality early childhood education can mean profoundly better lives for children, their families, and our society as a whole. Consider what you can do in your community or state — and then act!