from THE FLORIDA TIMES-UNION - Pre-K is a great investment

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Monday, October 3, 2005

By William L. Bainbridge
Guest Columnist

Pre-K is a great investment

On a recent trip through Georgia, it was time for an important ice cream stop near the center of the state.

"Could I please have the smallest hot-fudge sundae you can make, " I said.

"Do you want nuts?" the 17 year-old high school senior behind the counter responded.

"Yes please, pecans (with the emphasis on the pe)," I said.

"You mean pecans (with the emphasis on the cans)," she responded.

"Is that the way Jimmy Carter would pronounce pecans?" I asked, in my best imitation of her pronunciation.

She stared at me blankly. After repeating myself, she said, "Who is Jimmy Carter? "

The waitress, who will be eligible to vote next year, lived all of her life in the Peach State, where Carter had been governor before being elected president of the United States. Her co-worker, also a high school senior, was flabbergasted and embarrassed.

Scenarios like this make clear why multibillionaire Bill Gates recently turned his interest and a good bit of his foundationís money toward public high schools. There is no doubt Gates is doing some great things with his Gates Millennium Scholars program. As he says, many of our "high schools are broken, flawed and underfunded."

Gates undoubtedly is correct: Improvement in high schools needs to be made, especially in areas where poor people live. Public-opinion polls generally support the idea that citizens want improvements at the high-school level. Recent research, however, indicates that in times of limited resources, we should focus our efforts and dollars on early-childhood education.

  • James J. Heckman, the University of Chicagoís Nobel Prize-winning economist, analyzed the education economy data and concluded, "Early-childhood development is a powerful economic investment, one with far greater potential returns than any later-in-life job or educational training programs."
  • Economist Clive Belfield and researcher Dennis Winters have co-authored an important new study documenting the benefits of focusing on the education of children much younger than high-school age. They report that for every $1 put into preparing 4-year-olds for learning, schools would save 68 cents on later costs, such as special education and teacher turnover. They caution that programs have to be high-quality, meaning, among other things, that teachers should have certain qualifications and the student-teacher ratio should not grow too large.
  • A recent study from the Rand Corp. found that high-quality universal pre-kindergarten would return to society $2 to $4 for every $1 invested.
  • A rigorous study done by the University of Virginia showed that quality first-grade teachers who provide instructional and emotional support can improve academic outcomes for children who are considered at risk for school failure. Researchers Robert Pianta and Bridget Hamre document that children whose mothers had less than a college degree achieved at the same level as children with more highly educated mothers when such teachers were involved. This occurred because the children were placed in classrooms where the instruction was " focused and direct and the teacher provided ongoing feedback to the students about their progress." The Virginia study also documented positive results for children who were "functionally at risk."
For years, studies have been available documenting the benefits of high-quality early-childhood education, particularly for children from low-income families. Thatís because parents of such children often fail to provide a "home curriculum" before their offspring attend kindergarten. There is a good deal of evidence that teaching children, especially the disadvantaged, before they reach school helps keep them from dropping out, becoming unemployed, receiving welfare and even turning to crime. Those who get a better start are more likely to graduate from high school, find employment and pay taxes.

Education, government and business leaders claim we can improve elementary and secondary education simultaneously. But with limited resources, the majority of school budgets continue to be directed toward high schools. We must re-examine this and address the concept of directing our tax money to the bottom-line age group. Thankfully, many education, government and business leaders have been joining advocates to push early education as a form of economic development, which it is.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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