Sunday, August 1, 2010

Economists, Education & Early Intervention (Can I get an Amen?)

If there is one topic I wish I could yell from the roof tops it's the importance of early childhood programs, preschool programs, early intervention, and strong kindergarten classes. Sometimes politicians give early childhood lip service, but it frequently gets swept under the mat when we start talking about the nuts and bolts of what keeps education moving forward: test scores, teacher accountability, AYP, student progress, core curriculum, and all those other buzz words we've wrapped ourselves up in. Four year olds quickly become simply 'cute' in these discussions as we try to apply band aids to our older students so we can pass tests, meet ayp, and make the politicians stop pointing to us as a failing.

Lately, though, I keep reading about The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teacher all over the blogasphere. The article published in the New York Times Economy section on July 27th, discusses the findings of a recent study (though not yet peer-reviewed) that found quality kindergarten programs do, in fact, have a long-term positive impact on students (and in turn, society as a whole).

Previous studies of such programs all have said that quality kindergarten programs may benefit kids in the short term, but in the long-term the benefits seem to fade. By 5th grade students who participated in quality kindergarten programs tend do perform the same on standardized assessments as children who did not participate in these programs.

The new study from Harvard, however, finds that the problem with that argument is that it is only looking at the students' performances on tests, not their overall performance in life. (Shocking, you mean, test scores do not automatically correlate to how a student succeeds in life? I thought test scores were all that mattered anymore... but I digress)

The article states:
There has always been one major caveat, however, to the research on the fade-out effect. It was based mainly on test scores, not on a broader set of measures, like a child’s health or eventual earnings. As Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, says: “We don’t really care about test scores. We care about adult outcomes.”

"We don't really care about test scores. We care about adult outcomes" Who are these people, thinking about what actually matters? Looking at how students actually succeed in life?

The Times article continues:

Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.

All else equal, they were making about an extra $100 a year at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten. A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too.

Read the entire article (linked above) to gain a full understanding of the study.

Another study by economists that's popped up recently on quality early intervention can be found here, also written on July 27th.

The article by Jonah Leher in Wired ends with the economists' recommendation:

Furthermore, the gains from preschool appear to be so significant and consistent that, according to Cunha and Heckman, investing in early childhood education is just about the most cost-effective way to spend public money. The economists calculate that, for every dollar invested in preschool for at-risk children, society at large reaps somewhere between eight and nine dollars in return. That’s how I want my tax-dollars spent.

Can I get an Amen?

All of this leads me with a lot of questions, that can problem be divided into a lot of different blog posts... but for now, I can't help but wonder, why are economists able to complete these studies while in education we're still arguing over standardized test scores and accountability?

Sure, these studies are new, but they are all based off studies completed years ago. We've had data like this for years- why haven't we acted on this yet? What is it going to take to promote strong preschool and kindergarten programs throughout the country?

I can't help but hope that if the educators and politicians haven't been been able to draw attention to the importance of early childhood education, maybe economists, whose focus is beyond the school walls, will drive a change that will truly close the achievement gap.


The Science Goddess said...

Did you see the article out yesterday about how the long term effects of "good" preschools are the intangibles? Kids became adults who displayed persistence in the face of failure and had much stronger coping and problem-solving strategies.

My understanding about why the academic effects of kindergarten wear off relates to early childhood opportunities. A first-grade teacher who inherits a class where some kids had full-day K and some had half-day K spends a lot of time bringing the half-day K up to speed---by which time, those with the full-day K push are starting to stagnate.

Kindergarten readiness is important. Access to full-day K is important. If politicians were ready to embrace that, they could have their test score cake and the rest of us could feast on all of lifetime benefits we've outfitted in our youngest learners.

Jan said...

Please send your post to Obama.