There is no denying the fact that the earlier children are exposed to a high quality, organized learning environment, the more successful they will be in school and in life.
The classic Head Start, founded in 1965, and more recently, the Early Head Start (for infants and toddlers) programs have made positive impacts on the academic and social development of children and their families. The overall goal of these programs is to develop school-readiness for the children of low-income families. Even though there are uneven results because children score higher on academic measures early, but later, especially for minority children, the scores drop to the levels of those children who never attended pre-school programs. However, there are collateral benefits like greater earning power, more stable marriages, reduced dependence on welfare, less time on average in the penal system and lower rates of drug use for those who attended early childhood preschool programs.
Despite under-financing, mixed reviews and what some may characterize as “soft-statistics,” the programs have staved off “bang-for-the-buck” critics and continue to service under-privileged children. That’s because most everyone sees the benefits: White children have a 22 percent higher high school graduation rate; African-American youth have a 12 percent less chance of being charged with a crime and being arrested. (The increase in academic achievement for African-American youth, however, is not statistically significant after the third or fourth grade.)(See Ludwig and Phillips, 2007)
Even the “bang-for-the-buckers” know that studies show that Head Start has a 7 to 1 benefit-cost ratio. That means that for every dollar spent for pre-school programs you get a benefit equal to at least 7 dollars. (Just consider what it costs to incarcerate our youth.)Those same studies show that there is a direct relationship with increased funding to an increase in school attainment and a likelihood of attending some college.
So maybe, Obama has it right! He is making early childhood education the keystone of his education program and proposes spending $10 billion a year on his “Zero to Five” pre-school proposal. That kind of an investment could even provide a higher benefit-cost ratio.