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How Effective Are Early Childhood Education Programs? More Effective Than You Might Think

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Often, early childhood programs are touted as extremely important to a child’s future wellbeing. Unfortunately, economists haven’t been convinced by the evidence, and have overwhelmingly argued that the fade-out effect takes over in the long run. In other words, even children who had excellent early schooling end up performing about the same on tests when compared to similar children who had no specialized help in the early years of their lives. Of course, this demoralizes teachers and schools that try very hard to provide their students with the best possible help. However, the so-called fade-out effect was originally based on a very narrow set of outcome measurements, primarily test scores, and thanks to a new broader set of measures, economists are beginning to second-guess their original conclusions about the effectiveness of early childhood learning programs.

Earlier this year, Mr. Raj Chetty, an economist from Harvard, and five other researchers, set out to conduct a new study on the effectiveness of early childhood programs using a broader set of outcomes including a child’s health and eventual earnings. By studying the life paths of almost 12,000 children, now thirty years old, who were involved in a well-known education experiment in Tennessee in the 1980s, the Harvard researchers discovered startling results. Similar to other studies, this study found that the fade-out effect still applied: the positive effects of specialized early childhood help on test scores relatively vanished by the time the students reached junior high. Yet, when Mr. Chetty and his colleagues took another look at the students in adulthood, the early childhood help seemed to reemerge in an outstanding way: students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than other students, were less likely to become single parents, were more likely to be saving for retirement, and were earning more. In fact, for every percentile that they moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten, they made about $100 more at age 27.

Economists don’t pretend to know the exact reasons why early childhood programs affected the Tennessee children in these ways. Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to come up with some plausible causes: good early education can impart practical and moral skills like patience, discipline, manners, and perseverance. While multiple-choice tests might not be able to pick up on these skills, the 5-year-olds sure could.