John Thompson is an Oklahoma City teacher with 18 years of urban high school experience and an education blogger at thisweekineducation.com. He contributes regularly to our blog on education issues.
A large body of social science has demonstrated the long-term effectiveness of high-quality early education and teaching children to read for comprehension by 3rd grade. New research and cognitive science is now explaining why investments in the early years are far more cost effective than trying to turnaround struggling schools.
In the classic Perry Preschool Experiment, 123 low-income, three year old, African-American children were randomly assigned to either a treatment group, and given a high-quality pre-school education, or to a control group. While kids exposed to preschool got an initial bump in general intelligence, those gains dissipated by second grade. That result has been used by both the political left and right to challenge the effectiveness of early education. However, after tracking the Perry Preschool subjects for nearly 40 years, the research found that adults assigned to the preschool program were 20 percentage points more likely to have graduated from high school and 19 percentage points less likely to have been arrested more than five times. They earned much better grades, were more likely to remain married and were less dependent on welfare programs. Other scientific studies have shown that improvements in test scores due to early interventions often dissipate in subsequent grades. But when adult outcomes are considered, a dollar invested in high-quality early education can result in $8.70 savings to society.
This paradox is being explained by the power of “non-cognitive” abilities, such as self-control, persistence and grit. As Jonah Lerner, an author who focuses on neuroscience, summarizes the research, “Preschool might not make us smarter – our intelligence is strongly shaped by our genes – but it can make us a better person, and that’s even more important.” After all, dependability is the trait most valued by employers, while “perseverance, dependability and consistency are the most important predictors of grades in school.”
This research also applies to secondary schools. The poor record of school turnarounds is partially because cognitive skills stabilize after a child’s formative years. But non-cognitive skills are more easily improved during adolescence. This helps to explain why KIPP, as well as a variety of community schools that offer wraparound services that focus on the whole child and the whole system, have demonstrated success in middle schools. Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, for instance, describes the effectiveness of Big Brothers/Big sisters in reducing drug use in 10 to 16 year olds. Teens seek mentors who will help them develop adult skills.
A massive study of 12,000 kindergarten students has produced similar results. Test score increases did not persist, but the average student in a high-quality kindergarten class “could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too.” It was estimated that the value of the top kindergarten teachers to society is $320,000 per year.
The bottom line is that science is confirming the wisdom of veteran teachers and the common sense of employers. Class size matters for low-income kids, as does the bigger factor of peer pressure. But education is just as much an affair of “the Heart” as of “the Head.” Character matters. We must start early and remain committed to teaching our children to be responsible, persistent, and self-respecting members of society.