The Biggest Bang For the Buck Of All Public Investments

A lot of progressives (and even some conservatives, though fewer every day) dutifully mention early education and/or early childhood learning as domestic policy priorities. But in the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Ann O’Leary of Next Generation and the Center for American Progress explains why this is one education investment that we just cannot afford to shirk if we care about inequality:

[R]esearch finds that children’s early language development, understanding of math concepts, and social-emotional stability at age five not only predict how well they will do in school but also largely determine their adult earnings.

One study, for example, finds that children’s test scores in early elementary school largely explain the variation in their adult wages. Specifically, children who scored in the bottom 25 percent in these tests earned 20 percent less at age thirty-three than their counterparts who scored in the top 25 percent. The upshot is that on the day children arrive at kindergarten, one can already reasonably predict how much each will earn as an adult.

Moreover, inequality between American children is being exacerbated by a growing gap between the U.S. and other countries in this area:

[W]e already know that the older members of Generation Z in the United States are falling behind their teenage peers in other developed economies. The most recent data findings from the new Programme for International Student Assessment, the most-cited international educational ranking, finds that out of thirty-four developed countries, U.S. teenagers rank seventeenth in reading, twenty-first in science, and twenty-sixth in math.

Nothing is more important to the future of our nation than preparing our youngest generation to meet the unpredictable economic challenges of the 2020s and 2030s. Yet rising economic inequality and unstable economic growth define our society today, and this inequality and instability start from the very day a child is born. Many low- and middle-income families face extraordinary challenges to providing the care and education their children need to thrive in school and in the twenty-first-century workplace.

O’Leary notes with alarm that federal spending on support for children generally is projected to drop significantly in the next decade. She points to some non-traditional ways we can encourage parents to do more to get their children ready for formal education:

[V]oluntary home visits by child development professionals could increase awareness among working-class parents of how they can foster their children’s development at home, such as talking, reading, and singing to their children before bedtime. Home visiting programs are taking off under the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, established in 2010, and evaluations examining their effectiveness on parent and child outcomes are showing promising results.

But a full-court press on early childhood learning is what we really need, and “family-friendly” politicians should have their feet held to the fire to help or at least not get in the way.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.