After the 2000 election, President George W. Bush’s wife, Laura, said she would focus on early childhood education. The importance of that effort struck me much later on when I watched Charlie Rose’s Brain Series on PBS, where on some episodes top neuroscientists discussed the importance of stimulating the brain from the earliest possible age.
The first few years of a child’s life are a time of rapid brain growth. Neuroscientists claim that nurturing that growth from the earliest possible age can create the foundation for success years down the road. Are there studies that can prove this theory? Yes, there have been a few and now there is one more.
In the late 1990s, the city of Boston had limited funds to expand its public pre-K program for a few 4-year-olds. So, it used a lottery to select which kids could enroll. The selection being random created an opportunity for academic researchers to compare it to a randomly selected control group of 4-year-olds who were not selected.
Enter three economists, from the University of Chicago, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley, who studied the accomplishments of these two groups. Their findings are a bit of a mixed bag. The lottery winners did not do significantly better on standardized tests all the way through school. But test scores in school are imperfect markers of well-being and success in life.
By other measures, lottery winners fared much better. The lottery winners were less likely to be suspended in high school and less likely to be sentenced to juvenile incarceration. Nearly 70 percent of lottery winners graduated from high school, compared with 64 percent of lottery losers, which is a significant difference for two similar groups. The winners were also slightly more likely to take the SATs to enroll in college. College graduation rates could not be measured because they have not yet graduated.
These positive effects spanned racial groups, income groups and sexes, with larger differences for boys than girls. My two cents’ worth: It would seem that pre-K programs for disadvantaged kids have a greater effect on a child’s EQ — emotional intelligence — than on their IQ. Don’t underestimate this fact. For a lot of careers, IQ is overrated as a marker for future success. People skills, the ability to handle adversity, teamwork, patience, the ability to compromise and so on means that EQ is more important for well-being and success.
According to the authors, their findings are similar to other studies, which determined that early education had a larger effect on long-term outcomes than short-term academic metrics.
President Joe Biden has earmarked $20 billion in his latest spending proposal to subsidize state pre-K programs. About 65 percent of 4-year-olds and 50 percent of 3-year-olds currently attend pre-K programs. The federal subsidy would allow all pre-K kids to attend pre-K programs. It would be money well spent with future returns far exceeding that amount, lower welfare and incarceration expenses, and higher GDP.
The fact that it impacts EQ more than IQ should be an interesting avenue of future inquiry. Is it because children are learning good learning habits at an early age? Or is it many who came from disadvantaged backgrounds were exposed to positive and caring role models from an early age? Some combination of both might be the answer.
In a forthcoming paper in the American Economic Review, economists from the Universities of Chicago, Southern California and Brown concluded that parental incarceration can have some beneficial effects for some children. The authors analyzed 30 years’ worth of data from Ohio.
The study found that a parent’s incarceration lowers the chance of their child’s going to prison from 12.4 percent to 7.5 percent and improves the child’s long-term socioeconomic status. Perhaps having a parent go to prison removes a disruptive and unstable influence — a bad role model — from a family, allowing those left behind to thrive.
The authors also determined that sibling incarceration resulted in reduced criminal activity, consistent with the importance of peer pressure in the formation of youth tendencies. The conclusion one could derive is that both intellectual stimulation and removal of negative role models can influence a disadvantaged kid’s life. Adding positive role models — caring and involved adults — from pre-school on is icing on the cake.
Murad Antia teaches finance at the Muma College of Business, University of South Florida in Tampa.