Column: Finding what works best for early learning

Published Dec. 15, 2013

Students from poor families need educational help long before kindergarten. Otherwise, they start the first day of kindergarten behind their classmates and seldom catch up. But there's good news: An experiment in one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods is showing us which early education programs provide the highest economic return and why.

Here's what economists have uncovered so far. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study shows that socioeconomic status is an important predictor of the gap in math and reading test scores for poor children entering kindergarten. The ability gap observed in kindergarten then grows over time. Students with lower socioeconomic status subsequently have higher dropout rates, are more likely to be unemployed, have lower lifetime earnings and less social mobility.

Other research finds that early interventions decrease the ability gap, which subsequently reduces crime and teenage pregnancy and fosters workforce productivity. And spending a dollar on an early intervention has a higher rate of return than a dollar spent on a later intervention — lower student-teacher ratios, for example.

The open question is: Which early interventions have the biggest economic return? The Griffin Early Childhood Center is helping us answer the question. The GECC is one of the largest controlled field experiments in education ever conducted. It is located in one of the poorest areas of Chicago — Chicago Heights — where 92 percent of elementary school students are from low-income households.

A $28 million grant from the Griffin foundation funds the experiment. Economists Roland Fryer, Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) and John List set up the school to learn about early childhood education in a controlled environment.

The GECC experiment has five student groups. Group One is a preschool where students learn the so-called Tools of the Mind curriculum. Children learn to socialize, to be patient, to make decisions and follow directions and to listen. Group Two is also a preschool, but the students learn a more academic and traditional curriculum. In this school, students learn their numbers and letters and are introduced to basic reading.

For Chicago Heights parents with a child not enrolled in either GECC preschool, there's a Parent Academy. Parents in the PA are invited to family events and activities and they learn to teach their children one of the two school curricula at home. PA participants are eligible to receive free assessments of their child's development at least twice a year. Parents who attend and participate in the PA may receive up to $7,000, depending on their child's developmental progress.

Group Three has children whose parents are paid in cash after the student's regular assessment. Group Four has children whose parents have their payment deposited into a college savings account for their child. If the child doesn't attend college, they forfeit the money. Group Five is a control group made up of students that attend other Chicago Heights schools.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The GECC study promises to follow the five groups of children to adulthood, measuring whether the preschool programs and parental incentives make a measurable difference relative to the control group.

Although the field experiment is young, a new book by Uri Gneezy and John List — The Why Axis — finds that the results are promising. In the first year, the cognitive scores at the academic preschool — Group Two — are double the national average. The children at the other GECC preschool have scores that are now at the national average, far better than the control group. Both results are dramatically better than the score of a typical preschool child from Chicago Heights.

In the first year, the scores of the children with parents in the PA did not do as well as those in one of the preschools. But by year two, the PA children perform as well as the preschool children. Here's why: PA parents invest more in their child than parents of children in the preschools. PA parents acquire skills to help their children over the long term.

The GECC is helping us understand what early education programs and incentives provide the highest economic return and why. Indeed, if one of the worst learning environments in the country can benefit from a controlled social science experiment, so too can other cities or towns across America — those in Tampa Bay included.

With time and experimentation, we'll learn what else works best and begin to use it. We'll also learn what doesn't work, and try to eliminate it. The alternative is educational stagnation. And that is unacceptable.

Brian T. Kench is associate professor of economics, editor of "The Tampa Bay Economy," chairman of the department of economics at the University of Tampa and past president of the Academy of Business Economics. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.