• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Friday 10th May, 2013

Early child education: The economic case for investment #2 #2

strong>Investment in early education for disadvantaged children is one policy decision for which a moral argument can be made. Another perspective comes from economists such as James Heckman, who focus on how such investments can increase equity and are good for the overall economy. In his report on the value of early childhood education, James Heckman explores how governments can invest their limited resources to increase the human capital of their citizens to promote a more equal spread of educational opportunity in order to increase a nation’s economic productivity. However, it is important to determine how to best to make this type of investment by looking at what the evidence tells us about securing the best value for money for such programs.Children are born into circumstances that will have powerful effects on their progress in life. These circumstances include the natural capabilities of the child and the resources available in the family, such as parents’ education and economic resources, and the wider environment, such as what their neighborhood and school are like. These circumstances vary greatly, which means that children’s abilities and outcomes can also vary greatly. More disadvantaged circumstances are likely to lead to increase costs to society through such things as special education, additional health care needs, crime, and financial support.The effects of these differing circumstances appear very early on. Heckman presents examples showing that children from different family situations have different experiences in terms of cognitive stimulation and emotional support at home as early as ages 0-2. These differences are likely to continue throughout childhood and have impacts on what happens to children as adults, including success at school and in the job market.It is not possible to completely eliminate the differences in these circumstances. However, some factors can be improved to reduce the disparity. Policies that can reduce the achievement gap may have a positive impact on outcomes for disadvantaged children, leading to a reduction in social costs that may outweigh the costs of the initial investment.Although cognitive ability, including scores on academic tests, can indicate future success, it is not the only important predictor. Children with better social skills, self-control and motivation are also more likely to have better outcomes. Indeed, Heckman argues that these are the skills that differentiate between children who successfully complete school and those who do not. The achievement tests that are often used to determine the quality of a school or the academic readiness of a pupil do not measure these crucial skills, but they may be influenced by them. Public investment into programs or policies to reduce the achievement gap would be more successful if they can improve children’s abilities in a wider range of areas.In addition, interventions and policies are more effective if they address the early disadvantages that lead to poorer outcomes, rather than targeting the outcomes later in the child’s development. For example, Heckman points out that many policies to change the size of classes or funding of schools do not have as great an effect on outcomes as interventions that combine parental support with high-quality improved early child education.Interventions that are most likely to be successful in improving children’s future human capital are delivered in early childhood and incorporate work with parents as well as work with the children in school. Assisting parents in developing a family environment that will promote good social skills and behavior will have lasting effects that will impact on the child in adulthood.The High-Scope Perry Preschool program was one example of a program that incorporates family support and early child education. It showed significant differences in outcomes and achievement in adulthood between those children who had participated in the program and those who had not.In other cases, programs can be combined. For example, the Nurse Family Partnership program involves home visits to high-risk first-time mothers for two years to provide help to improve the family environment and parenting skills. It has also shown good long-term results that could be combined with an early education program to promote human capital for children as they develop.Heckman points out that one could perhaps assume that programs that provide additional support and education for disadvantaged children and families are beneficial for the families but not for the public purse that is paying for it. However, if investment is not made in these early years, these children are likely to cost the public much more through deficits in earnings, unemployment, increased likelihood of crime, and other poor outcomes. As Heckman puts it, “either way we are going to pay”. Whether or not it is considered to be morally right to provide early education to disadvantaged children, it makes economic sense to spend less early on to prevent more expensive costs later**********Reference: Heckman, J.J. (2011). The economics of inequality: The value of early childhood education. American Educator, 35 (1),31-47.

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