In the annual State of the Union address Feb. 12, President Obama proposed making “high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”
In addition to ensuring that our future work force remains competitive worldwide, President Obama argued that an investment in learning for very young children will pay benefits later by closing the achievement gap between poor children and their wealthier counterparts.
Those opposed to this initiative cite a study sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services, which found that children in Head Start programs (just more than a million children) did not realize any lasting benefits. Although language development improved while the children were in Head Start, the modest gain did not continue through elementary school.
Both critics and supporters, however, agree that the Head Start program is underfunded and that the quality of teaching needs to be professionalized — that is, specialized preschool teachers are needed to target this age group and should be paid a teacher’s salary (in contrast, Head Start teachers are paid salaries at the poverty level or just above the poverty level).
Setting aside the quality of the teaching in the Head Start program, the conclusions of the Health and Human Services study are contradicted by a decades-long study conducted by Craig Ramey, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Dr. Ramey found that “investing in high-quality early education has dramatic and sustained payoffs not just for the children directly involved but for society as well.”
Dr. Ramey’s research project began in 1972 “as a carefully controlled scientific study of the potential benefits of early childhood education for children from low-income families who were at risk of developmental delays or academic failure.”
The findings, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, showed that “the children who received early educational intervention did better academically, culminating in greater educational achievements as adults.”
Dr. Ramey also found that “decades later, participants were far more likely than the control group to have been consistently employed and far less likely to have used public assistance.”
In addition, researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who recently completed a study of 2,000 children who were enrolled in preschool education found “improvements in children’s language, literacy, math, executive function (the ability to regulate, control and manage one’s thinking and actions) and emotional development skills citywide.” The program was taught by master’s degree-level teachers, and the children, ages 4 to 5, were from diverse backgrounds.
These studies and others like them suggest that we need to either spend money up front to educate preschoolers — especially those who are underprivileged — so that they can lead productive lives or be prepared to spend money later for remedial classes, prisons, welfare and disability payments.
For example, Hale County in Alabama reports that one in four working adults receives disability payments from Social Security. The local doctor has concluded that patients with little education and poor job prospects can’t function, so he fills out the required paperwork that qualifies them for Social Security Disability Insurance. These patients easily meet the requirement that they be unemployable for one year.
While the proportion of adults receiving disability payments is exceptionally high in Hale County, the problem is widespread. A whopping 14 million Americans under the age of 65 receive disability payments averaging $1,130 per month. In addition, after a two-year waiting period, many of these individuals are eligible for Medicare, an additional cost to taxpayers. The federal government spends more on disability payments each year than on welfare and food stamps combined.
Although the rise of disability recipients can be attributed in part to an aging work force, many workers are unfit or unqualified for the available jobs because of their limited education.
Clearly, if we don’t make the initial investment in preschool education, we’ll end up spending more later and wasting human potential in the process.
When I was a high school teacher, my goal was to help each student reach his or her potential and become a productive, taxpaying citizen; hence, I choose the up-front investment. What’s your opinion?
Carole Carson lives in Nevada City.
“… the children who received early educational intervention did better academically, culminating in greater educational achievements as adults.”
— FROM findings published in Developmental psychology