Nation & World

The importance of early education

6 min read

Panel stresses need for funding to implement variety of programs

Forty-six years ago, a working-class town in Michigan began a program that changed lives. “Mind-blowing,” one scholar called it at Harvard last week.

The Perry Preschool was a program for 3- and 4-year-olds that used a problem-solving approach to learning, a focus on social development, and the engagement of parents in their child’s education.

More than four decades later, the effects of the hands-on curriculum administered by well-trained teachers are hard to ignore. When measured in a comprehensive, longitudinal study against their adult counterparts who didn’t attend the preschool, the Perry students are much better off. Now in their 40s, the former pre-schoolers have more family stability, earn more money, are less likely to receive welfare, and are less involved in crime.

The preschool and its findings figure prominently in a new book by David Kirp LL.B. ’68, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, founding director of the Harvard Center on Law and Education, and noted author and journalist. “The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics” examines the movement towards national preschool education and reviews the scientific and economic research on the subject. It also tells of an increasingly receptive political climate and the public support behind it. In addition, the book addresses how politics and policy can mean the movement’s success or failure.

On Nov. 29, Kirp was part of an Askwith Education Forum on early education, sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), along with education experts Kathleen McCartney and Jack Shonkoff.

The group agreed that early experiences can influence learning, and that quality preschool can mean immediate as well as long-term benefits. But they questioned a dogmatic approach to the benefits of preschool education, and stressed that contemporary attitudes on the subject are shaped by limited and possibly outdated science. Important learning and development, they said, can happen well before preschool and long after it. The questions to tackle now, they agreed, are how to go about strengthening all early education — and how to fund the efforts.

“It’s no longer an issue in the scientific community about whether early experiences shape brain circuitry. But it’s still a very complex question in the scientific community when you get beyond the why question, of what should we do, and when should we begin,“ said Shonkoff, Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Graduate School of Education, and director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child.

The panel also acknowledged the argument that the science that propels the debate has been oversold. Many experts question the drive to apply the findings in neuroscience and brain development — the widely accepted research that shows the early brain is a hotbed of neural activity — to the creation of school curricula; and many suspect the economic research that suggests phenomenal rates of return on the investment of children who attend preschool.

“We are three people who have used the research to support policies for young children,” said panelist McCartney, HGSE dean and Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development, who asked the panel to examine the issue. “I could imagine myself putting on my quantitative policy analysis hat and actually embracing some of the criticism.”

Kirp agreed that the science can be useful, but he also offered words of caution. He noted much of the brain science dates back 20 to 30 years with very little of it saying anything new “other than [that] children who live in an extraordinarily deprived environment for some period of time are going to be in some way, shape, or form disabled in the long term. It certainly doesn’t [lead] to baby Einstein or Mozart in the cradle,” he said.

In addition, he warned, there is more to shaping significant policy than just the numbers.

“We have ‘fetishized’ in the academy a statistical archetype and made it mean something … more than is useful … and so made ourselves less useful in policy conversations.”

Shonkoff argued for a broader empirical approach going forward, one that could make the most out of the important early learning period for children.

“How do we build a stronger knowledge base to answer the question really of what should we do?” he asked.

The development and implementation of an effective, universal early education model, the three agreed, is another question entirely.

Much is known about how to develop quality programs. Well-trained educators, better salaries, smaller class sizes, and parent and neighborhood involvement, said Kirp, are all part of the solution. The main problem, he argued, is funding, specifically, where to get the money and where best to spend it.

Shonkoff, a pediatrician, used the analogy of the potential pitfalls of universal health care for children to illustrate his concern for the fate of universal early education. He said giving a child health insurance doesn’t mean the child will have access to good health care. The same could be said of preschool, he said. It’s wrong to assume that just giving children access to decent preschool programs will mean they will all graduate from high school, get a good job, and avoid unintended pregnancies, he contended.

“We are going to have to learn what to do more in the early childhood years to improve outcomes beyond just making people think that somehow preschool is going to solve these problems,” he said.

A developmental scientist in the audience voiced a concern that, with contradictory and uneven data, it was hard even to make a case for the effectiveness of early education programs.

“Try to make me not depressed,” he said.

The panel was optimistic about the new wave of attention on the issue, the broad understanding that it requires adequate investment, and the public will behind it. They agreed the movement represents a sharp departure from the past. And that is reason for hope.

“The reason we are excited is that there is a focus on the early childhood period … [and] we collectively believe that there should be,” said McCartney.

“We’re excited compared to where we used to be.”