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Does Early Childhood Education Benefit Students?

April 23, 2013

School childrenGov. Corbett recently proposed an $11.4 million increase in the early childhood education budget, which means Pennsylvania could spend a total of $348.4 million on early education programs this upcoming fiscal year. President Obama mentioned early education reform in his State of the Union address, and now Bob Casey has a plan. But do early education programs really work?

A government study on Head Start, the federal preschool program which serves 1 million children a year, showed any positive impacts from such programs disappear by the third grade. Here is what the Department of Health and Human Services, which conducted the study, concluded:

In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade, there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.

Of course, critics may counter that Head Start is just one program, and if it is to succeed, it needs more funding, but Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, challenges those notions:

There’s also evidence, though much debated, that ultra-intensive pre-K programs can remedy the deficits. But the programs commonly cited in this regard notably Michigan’s Perry Preschool and North Carolina’s Abecedarian Project turn out to be truly exceptional. These were richly financed, highly sophisticated, multifaceted interventions in the lives of extremely disadvantaged youngsters and their families, and they took place decades ago. The University of Maryland’s Douglas Besharov calls them hothouse programs, noting that they were “run by top-notch specialists, served fewer than 200 children, cost at least $15,000 per child per year in today’s dollars, often involved multiple years of services, had well-trained teachers, and instructed parents on effective child-rearing. Significantly, the children they served had low IQs or had parents with low IQs.

So how effective were these well-financed programs? Studies concluded the long- term effects turned out to be mostly small. Given this evidence, it’s worth examining what education programs we should scale up in Pennsylvania, and which we should avoid.