Counterfactuals, quality, and the effects of prekindergarten

Photo of preschoolers,

Universal prekindergarten has become an increasingly popular policy proposal in recent years, thanks to widespread research on its long-term benefits. Many researchers—University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman, most prominently—have highlighted the positive gains later in life for children who attend high-quality prekindergarten programs. But a number of research papers published over the past several months have raised concerns about the effectiveness of these programs. A recent literature review of prekindergarten studies shows how important context is for understanding the effectiveness of these programs, and how the lessons from these studies can help policymakers improve early childhood education.

The literature review—by University of Chicago economists Sneha Elango, Jorge Luis Garcia, James Heckman, and Andrés Hojman—looks at a wide number of studies that examine the effects of early childhood education such as prekindergarten and child care. The economists also make one key distinction: Some programs are means tested, only serving children whose parents make less than a certain income. Other programs are universal, open to children of parents of any income. The effects of the different kinds of programs vary, as do the lessons we can draw from evaluations of them.

When it comes to means-tested programs, considering the counterfactual is king. Take, for example, Head Start—the federal government’s means-tested prekindergarten program, which has developed a reputation as an ineffective program due to the results of the Head Start Impact Study. This study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services examined how Head Start affected children participating in the program.

In the eyes of the University of Chicago economists, however, this evaluation suffered from its failure to correctly consider the counterfactual. Many children in the control group—those who didn’t get into Head Start—went to other early childhood education programs. When the effects of Head Start are compared relative to staying at home, the effects are quite significant. Compared to the experience of attending another program, however, the effect isn’t that large.

A similar consideration has to be made when interpreting the results of Tennessee’s voluntary prekindergarten program, from the previously cited research report by economists Mark Lipsey, Dale Farran, and Kerry Hofer of the Peabody Research Institute. Like Head Start, the Tennessee program was means tested, and the analysis found the results to be lackluster. So these evaluations say less about the absolute effectiveness of prekindergarten programs and more about the relative value compared to other programs.

The importance of relative value and the quality of the programs comes very much into play when discussing universal prekindergarten programs. Take a recent study looking at the effects of a universal program in Quebec. The analysis found increased rates of criminality and lower health for children with more access to child care programs.

Elango and her co-authors point out, however, that the program originally served only low-income children before expanding to become universal. But the child care being subsidized appears to have been below the quality of care children with higher-income parents would have received at home. Again, considering the counterfactual—the quality of the care given—imparts an important lesson.

The problem to tackle, then, is to figure out how to improve prekindergarten and early childhood education and daycare, and scale up the lessons gleaned from those programs. Previous research shows that the variation in Head Start center methods can help us figure out which aspects of the program are helpful. The benefits of a universal high-quality prekindergarten are immense, as Washington College economist Robert Lynch and Equitable Growth’s Kavya Vaghul outlined last week. Now, it’s just a matter of going out and ensuring those gains can be got.

December 7, 2015


Nick Bunker


Childcare & Early Education

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