• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 18th October, 2007

Getting the measure of the 'mileage' of preschool care

strong>W. Steven Barnett, Rutgers UniversityLike many other analyses of the benefits and costs of public early care and education (ECE), Jens Ludwig and Deborah Phillips's Social Policy Report on Head Start relied on three studies that constitute a kind of Rosetta stone for the economics of ECE. They are the Perry Preschool (Barnett, 1996; Belfield, Nores, Barnett, & Schweinhart, 2005), Abecedarian (Barnett & Masse, 2007), and Chicago Child-Parent Center (Temple & Reynolds, 2007). The three studies are useful individually, but as a combination they are unique because they provide comprehensive estimates of costs and benefits based on follow-up from the preschool years into adulthood. No one should expect any public program to produce the same results as any one of the studies. To borrow a phrase from the US Environmental Protection Agency, for any particular public ECE program “your mileage may vary". In general, variations in the population served, program design, and the neighborhood and broader social context can be expected to affect costs and benefits. Insights into how “mileage” varies with population, program, and context can be gained from comparisons between these studies and with others to be found in the larger literature. Several salient examples are considered here. All three programs served disadvantaged children who were primarily (or entirely) African-American, though there is some variation in degree of disadvantage. As a rule of thumb, one might expect similar programs, implemented for broader populations, to produce smaller benefits for less disadvantaged populations. There is likely to be some rough correspondence between the incidence of the problems ameliorated by ECE (eg. special education, high school dropout, and crime) and the economic benefits produced. There is some evidence that this occurs. However, larger benefits might be expected for some children not included, particularly those from non-English speaking backgrounds. All three programs were intensive, compared to the ECE available to most American children, including typical Head Start and state pre-K. They had well-paid, highly qualified teachers with strong supervision. Staffing ranged from the Perry Preschool’s one teacher for every six children to Chicago’s teacher and aide for each 17 children. The Abecedarian program provided child care in full-day, year-round services from the first year of life to age five. The other two offered half-days over up to two school years. The program differences are evident in costs. All three cost more than typical child care and many public pre-K programs. Chicago was less expensive than Head Start and some state pre-K programs. In essence, Chicago was a less intensive replication of the Perry half-day Pre-K approach. As a result, it cost much less. It also yielded all of the same types of effects, but each is smaller, resulting in smaller economic benefits. While differences in the population or context could account for some of the differences in outcomes, these other differences are relatively small. Overall, the pattern is highly suggestive of a dose response relationship (more in, more out) between intensity in the classroom and benefits from child gains. The Abecedarian program provided over five times as many hours per year as the half-day school-year programs, and more years of service. Its cost is correspondingly high. Yet, the reduced child care costs and increased maternal earnings together more than offset the additional cost. Moreover, the maternal earnings benefit estimate includes only gains after children entered school, the result of more persistent labor force participation during the preschool years. The immediate effect on earnings from free child care birth to five was not measured, but would only add to estimated benefits. Thus, the high cost of birth to five, high-quality child care due to hours and duration turns out to be misleading. The extra time is basically self-financing, at least for a population where employment is significantly constrained by the affordability of quality child care. This has implications for Head Start, which is often half-day and typically on a school-year schedule. Finally, differences in crime benefits across the three studies raise perplexing issues. The Perry program had large benefits from crime reduction. As expected, Chicago had smaller benefits. Abecedarian had none. Differences in population and neighborhoods could contribute to the results. However, program differences may have played a role. A curriculum comparison study involving the Perry Preschool found social and emotional development highly sensitive to differences among curricula. There were early indications that Abecedarian had negative impacts on aggression. Other research suggests that Abecedarian’s early start and long hours might be implicated. This could imply a trade-off between child care benefits and some child development benefits. Given the potential magnitude of these benefits, research on how to secure both child care and socio-emotional development benefits should have a high priority. See also: The pros and cons of early years programs – where to start! and Can several thin reeds ever make a strong policy boat?• for a fully referenced version of this article, see The Benefits and Costs of Head Start.References Barnett, W. S. (1996). Lives in the balance: Age-27 benefit-cost analysis of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program (Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, 11). Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press. Belfield, C.R., Nores, M., Barnett, W.S., & Schweinhart, L. (2006). The High/Scope Perry Preschool Program: Cost-benefit analysis using data from the age-40 follow-up. Journal of Human Resources 41(1): 162–190. Barnett, W. S. & Masse, L. N. (2007). Early childhood program design and economic returns: Comparative benefit-cost analysis of the Abecedarian program and policy implications. Economics of Education Review, 26(1), 113-125.Temple, J.A. & Reynolds, A.J. (2007). Benefits and costs of investments in preschool education: Evidence from the Child-Parent Centers and related programs. Economics of Education Review, 26(1), 126-144.

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