One of the most energizing reads of the fall season is Tim Bartik’s new book, “From Preschool to Prosperity: The Economic Payoff to Early Childhood Education.”
“Wouldn’t it be great if there was some feasible policy that could boost the American economy and enlarge opportunities for more of our children?” Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute, asks on page one.
Well: “we’re in luck. Our economic future and our children’s future can be significantly improved by expanding high-quality early childhood education programs, such as pre-K education.”
“People should see themselves as part of a historic movement,” Bartik said of early education advocates in a recent interview. In the history of education, he explained, there was the common school movement, the high school movement, school desegregation — and now there’s the expansion of high-quality preschool programs.
The book, which was released last week, is an engaging, evidence-based explanation of how early education pays off for children, parents, employers, and society at large. The book shares the same straightforward, passionate voice as Bartik’s “investinginkids.net” blog on “early childhood programs and local economic development policies.”
A Preschool Plan
Writing that “we know enough to move forward with a full-scale proposal for early childhood education,” Bartik calls for “a full-scale proposal for early childhood education” that includes:
- universal, full-day pre-K for four-year-olds from all income backgrounds
- developmental child care and pre-K from birth to age five for low-income children, and
- home-visiting programs for low-income families
This plan has economic benefits that would exceed costs, and it would be particularly helpful to children from poor and working-class families.
The cost? About $79 billion a year, which is 2 percent of total government taxes, and “13 percent of what is currently spent on public K–12 education.”
The benefits? There’s an impressive list:
- increased lifetime earnings for children enrolled in early education programs
“$79 billion annually would increase the present value of future earnings of former child participants by a multiple of between two and three times these program costs,” he writes, adding in the interview: “If you just boost lifetime earnings by 1 percent, it ends up adding up to some pretty large numbers.”
- increased employment opportunities for their parents
“Child care programs allow parents to work or go to school, which boosts earnings both in the short run and the long run. Some parenting programs, such as the Nurse Family Partnership, help change the life course of parents—for example, through encouraging job training, which may boost earnings.”
- less income inequality
“This proposal would not reverse all of the recent increases in U.S. income inequality since 1979, but it would help. For low-income Americans, this proposal would offset most of the increased income inequality since 1979; for middle-income Americans, this proposal would offset one-sixth of the increased income inequality,” Bartik writes.
- a well prepared workforce that has a positive “spillover effect” on the economy by helping the entire workforce function at a higher level
“… employers have to make decisions about technology use and job creation based on the overall supply of workers and skills, not on whether any given individual has skills. Even if I have great skills, if my coworkers have lousy skills, my employer is going to have more trouble introducing new technologies. This will harm the competitiveness of my employer, which will damage my wages.”
- a possible “second generation effect”
“If we invest now in early childhood education, then that raises the earnings of former childhood participants as adults. When these former participants form their own families, their family’s income will be higher. This will lead to better childhood development in the next generation, and better adult outcomes for that generation. This virtuous cycle obviously can continue.”
Response to Skeptics
“I’m trying to say, look, what’s your criteria for social intervention?” Bartik said, explaining that early education has much more evidence behind it than other commonly discussed reforms and interventions.
In chapter four, Bartik responds to specific criticisms of early education research.
“A persistent theme is these criticisms is that the effectiveness of early childhood education is uncertain. Uncertainty argues for postponing action until we know more,” Bartik writes. But, he adds, “we do know something about how to deliver effective programs.”
Responding to criticism that data from Perry Preschool and Abecedarian are, essentially, dusty, old findings, Bartik points to new studies and to the success of large-scale preschool programs in Boston, Chicago, and Tulsa.
What about the fading effects of preschool? Bartik writes, “many early childhood programs have fading test score impacts, but still significantly improve adult outcomes.”
“This fading and reemergence of effects could be due to non-cognitive skills, which are important to adult earnings but harder to measure using standardized tests. Social skills and character skills are as least as important as cognitive skills in making a worker more employable and more productive.”
“More research is always needed,” he said. “But we actually know so much about this.”
“My fear is that some states will move ahead on access and not quality,” Bartik said, explaining that it’s easier to get quality in small-scale programs. However, it takes sufficient funding to attract the skilled teachers it takes to have high-quality large-scale programs. Bartik pointed to Michigan, saying that while the state has expanded the number of preschool slots, its per slot spending has lagged.
As he explained in his blog last year, “On the negative side, the $3,625 is still inadequate. A high-quality half-day slot probably costs around $4,500, to allow for adequate teacher salaries to attract quality teachers, and to pay for other needed costs.”
Bartik’s book is available as a free PDF. It’s also sold on Amazon in print or as a $0.99 ebook. Read it whole or pull talking points out of specific chapters. The book was reviewed here by New America’s EdCentral blog.
In addition to his blog, Bartik is also on Twitter. His handle is @TimBartik. He gave a TEDx talk at Miami University that explains, “what preschool does for state economies and for promoting state economic develop.” Bartik says he used reactions in the video’s comments section to inform his book.
Another talk on using early childhood programs as a tool for economic development is available here. It’s based on his first book, “Investing in Kids: Early Childhood Programs and Local Economic Development.”
As Bartik concludes in his newest book: “Broadening economic opportunities for most Americans is challenging. To make progress, we need feasible policies that can make a big difference. Throughout their nation’s history, Americans have sought to expand educational opportunities. A logical next step, backed by research, is expanding high-quality early childhood education.”