Chicago, like many cities, has been trying to expand preschool to improve life outcomes for disadvantaged children.
But a report out Monday from the University of Chicago and the University of South Carolina suggests starting almost at birth would provide a much higher payoff.
University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate James Heckman has spent years studying the benefits of birth-to-five programs. But his latest paper, written with researchers at the University of Southern California, found significantly stronger lifetime benefits than other similar studies.
The paper focused on more than 100 mothers and children who took part in an intensive program in North Carolina in the 1970s. Participants enrolled when the children were just eight weeks old and were cared for eight to nine hours a day until age five. The subsidized child care allowed mothers to work, which also had a lasting positive impact on their lifetime earnings.
Though the program is quite expensive, Heckman said the long-term benefits are well worth it. The researchers pegged the “return on investment” of this intensive program at 13 percent, compared to 7 to 10 percent in previous studies of other programs.
Some of that can be attributed to the unusually early start, researchers said.
“We found most of the growth in IQ, cognitive skills, has taken place by age three,” Heckman said. “It’s not that children are invariably set in stone at age three, but if you look at IQ growth, a lot of it is occurring in the very early years.”
Heckman also said the findings should inform politicians, like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who are focused on expanding high-quality early childhood programs.
“The politicians have fixated on certain bodies of evidence, but there’s a broader body of evidence, to which this contributes, that shows the earlier, the better,” Heckman said.
Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.