Economist touts early education to EBR audience

Steven Barnett
Steven Barnett

“From a taxpayer’s perspective it makes a lot more sense to fix the problem than spending the rest of the time catching up,” said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, at the New Jersey university.

Barnett was in Baton Rouge as part of a speaker series organized by the nonprofit Academic Distinction Fund. ExxonMobil is the lead sponsor of the series.

He spoke to about 150 people gathered at the Renaissance Baton Rouge Hotel.

Like other speakers in the series, Barnett has highlighted the high “return on investment” of early childhood programs. Barnett focused on the academic gains of the highest quality programs researchers have studied.

“A high-quality program has the potential to eliminate almost all of the achievement gap in kindergarten,” Barnett said. “That’s a pretty big deal.”

He said it’s true that those gains fade over time, which is the case with all interventions, but the gains from high-quality programs never disappear.

By age 10, students still were performing substantially better than peers who didn’t go to preschool, the equivalent of almost half of historic difference on standardized tests between students considered academically at risk and those who are not. The gains, though, go beyond test scores and continue into adulthood.

Students who encounter quality preschool are more likely as adults to own their own car, to own a home and to have a savings account, he said.

Barnett has practical experience trying to develop such a program. In response to state court rulings in the late 1990s, New Jersey, Barnett’s home state, revamped its early childhood education system and the quality, and results, have climbed steadily since.

Barnett said even programs that have not fared as well in research, such as Head Start, can and have been improved. A 2003 study of Head Start is often cited as evidence of “fade out,” a phenomenon critics of early childhood focus on. The Bush administration, however, increased the education credential needed to get hired and also beefed up the literacy instruction, he said.

“Head Start is today a considerably more effective program,” he said.

The Rutgers professor criticized the politicized research that selects unrepresentative studies to paint a misleading picture of the value of early childhood education.

“There’s a cottage industry of producing research, with quotes around it, whose intent is to give political cover for doing the wrong thing,” Barnett said.

Poor policy decisions are evidenced in cuts as documented in an annual “State of Preschool” yearbook NIEER publishes.

Twenty-seven states, including Louisiana, reduced funding substantially for preschool from a peak in 2008.

As funding declined in Louisiana, so has the state’s measure on quality standards. For instance, in 2011-12, the last year measured, Louisiana regulators made fewer monitoring visits to its signature LA 4 prekindergarten program.

Barnett said Louisiana deserves credit for developing standards for all early childhood programs, public and private, but says it’s time to follow up by setting appropriate funding levels.

Barnett said the many upsides of early childhood education are too numerous and substantial to ignore.

“All of these taken together have the potential to reduce social and economic inequality,” he said.