Long-term benefits of early ed are real

  • Article by: ART ROLNICK and ROB GRUNEWALD
  • Updated: February 14, 2013 - 8:22 PM

Reaching the neediest children and their parents early is important.

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President Barack Obama uses a spy glass to play with a young girl during a visit to College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga. on Thursday.

Photo: Johnny Crawford, Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

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As momentum grows in support of funding early childhood education in Minnesota, and with President Obama encouraging Congress to do the same, it's important that we get the facts straight about the evidence in support of these investments.

In her Feb. 10 commentary ("Early ed: Not as good as it sounds?"), Katherine Kersten takes on two studies of model early childhood education programs -- the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs -- claiming that it's unclear whether they produced long-term effects based on a 2005 appraisal.

Recently, Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman has substantiated the long-term impact of the Perry project by reanalyzing the study data and addressing technical concerns. Heckman's analysis shows up to a 10 percent annual rate of return due to reductions in special education and crime and higher tax revenue, among other benefits.

Furthermore, results from the Chicago Child-Parent Center (CPC) study through age 26, which were conspicuously absent from Kersten's column, showed that two years of preschool in a large-scale program that reaches hundreds of children each year can have long-term effects similar to the Perry program. Furthermore, the University of Minnesota is currently overseeing a federal grant to replicate the CPC model in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Kersten notes that a recent randomized trial of Head Start showed modest early participant gains, but by third grade these gains were not detected. However, studies using other sound research methods find positive long-term associations with attending Head Start, such as increased educational attainment and reduced crime.

Head Start also has taken recent steps to improve its impact on school preparedness. For example, the federal government is in the process of rebidding contracts with the lowest-performing programs.

We agree with Kersten that for the neediest children, reaching children and their parents early is important. Evidence-based home visiting programs, such as the intensely evaluated Nurse Family Partnership model, support healthy birth outcomes, safer home environments and stronger school preparedness.

Nevertheless, providing scholarships to low-income families so their 3- and 4-year-olds can attend a high-quality early education program is a key step toward boosting school preparedness and lifelong success in Minnesota. Indeed, based on the research cited above, it may be the best public investment we can make.

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Art Rolnick is a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Rob Grunewald is an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

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