May 10, 2021

Early childhood education pays off

 I've often thought that people who are drawn into the struggle for economic justice (and other kinds too) would do well to, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, "read, mark and inwardly digest" three books that may not seem obvious.

These include the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and the Prince by Machiavelli, not that I'm in favor of war or being a ruthless Renaissance condottieri. 

The first is a good working description of the way the world seems to work. The second applies some of the same insights to strategic situations, including nonviolent ones. The third is just kind of fun but also has great advice about responding to things in our power (he called it "virtu") and things that aren't (he called that "fortuna"). 

One thread from the Art of War that I think about a lot is the discussion of direct and indirect actions. Often, directly flinging ourselves at whatever we dislike isn't the best way to proceed, especially if the problem is huge and/or the opposition is very powerful. Head on collisions can be very inefficient.

Sun Tzu put it this way in a translation I like, "Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more."

I was reminded of this when I saw this article in the New York Times about how powerful the effects of pre-kindergarten programs, a priority of the Biden administration, can be. Apparently when Boston implemented a public pre-K program in the late 1990s, there weren't enough slots for all the four year olds. So a lottery randomly selected kids for the program. Intentionally or otherwise, this created a perfect opportunity for researchers to study the effects.

The results are in. For people who worship test scores (the educational equivalent of commodity fetishism), there wasn't much of an effect. But that's not everything and certainly doesn't say much about the quality of life of the kids.

It turned out that preschool increased the probability that students would graduate from high school by six percentage points. The same kids were nine percentage points more likely to take the SAT and eight percentage points more likely to attend college. They were also less likely to be suspended or caught up in the juvenile legal system.

The benefits were experienced across the board in terms of race, socioeconomic status and sex, although effects were higher for boys.

The researchers conclude that "preschool can lead to long-term educational attainment gains through improvements in behavior. Furthermore, the observed effects across demographic groups suggest that all students are likely to benefit from universal preschool."

I think other research indicates that even greater positive impacts on  could be realized if this was combined with universal access to voluntary home visiting/early childhood education/in home family education programs in the first 1,000 or so days of life. 

The research of economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman suggests that "comprehensive, high-quality, birth-to-five early childhood programs for disadvantaged children, which  yielded a 13% return on investment per child, per annum through better education, economic, health, and social outcomes."

As Sun Tzu noted long ago, the indirect approach can be a path to victory