Tuesday, July 5, 2011

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Preschool

By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant. You know that poem “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”?  It suggests that most of what you need to know about how to get along in life you learned as a small child in school: don’t take things that aren’t yours, share, clean up your own mess, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them, play fair, say you’re sorry—that sort of thing.  It’s an inspirational poem—the kind of thing your mom might have included in the card she gave your kindergarten teacher after your kindergarten graduation.   

Whether you find the poem inspirational or just overly sentimental, new research suggests it’s right about one thing: we learn some pretty economically (not to mention socially) valuable life lessons in school-based early childhood education programs.  Data from studies of preschool programs in Ypsilanti, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois suggest that the “soft skills” we learn in early childhood (from ages 2 to 5) have a huge economic impact. 

We often think of preschool as playtime and not necessarily as a place where the sorts of skills that boost our earning potentials are being developed.  Typically, when we look at the value of education we’re talking about the value of knowing the material that was covered in class or developing a certain set of cognitive skills.  The soft-skills we learn in preschool like how to negotiate, to share, to stay on task, to respect others, to pay attention, to control our tempers, etc. are somewhat more difficult to quantify, but apparently no less important than the cognitive skills we learn and the knowledge we acquire in K-16.

A study published last month in Science suggests that kids who go to preschool have higher educational attainment, higher income, higher socioeconomic status, higher rates of health insurance coverage, lower rates of justice-system involvement, and lower rates of substance abuse.  Research from the Perry Project in Ypsilanti shows that disadvantaged boys who went to preschool were half as likely to be in jail as their counterparts in the control group who did not attend preschool; the preschool kids were also unemployed less often and earned about 30 percent more than their non-preschool going counterparts.  All of that not only means increased incomes for the individuals involved, it also has an impact on local, state, and national economies. 

University of Chicago economist and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman has argued that investing money in high-quality preschool for disadvantaged kids is one of the smartest things we can do with our money.  In his 2010 paper “A New Cost-Benefit and Rate of Return Analysis for the Perry Preschool Program: A Summary”, Heckman maintains that for every dollar we spend on such programs we get back 7-10 percent per year in reduced costs of courts and crime, reduced costs of educating unruly and undisciplined kids, reduced costs of unemployment and social safety net programs, and increased earnings, among other things. 

Considering the relatively low cost of high-quality preschool programs, the high level of economic return, and the high level of participation effects, we might do well, as economic developers, to focus more of our attention when it comes to workforce training on funding early-childhood education.

Regular readers of this blog may recall my related post from last September on the economic value of high-quality kindergarten programs.  I thought I’d also share a few links to other papers James Heckman has written about the economic value of preschool:  “The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children”, and “Analyzing Social Experiments as Implemented:  A Reevaluation of the Evidence from the HighScope Perry Preschool Program”.  I first heard about these studies from the Planet Moneyblog—they also have a podcast where they talk to James Heckman about his work on the value of preschool.