Early childhood education is good for mothers, too

Economist James Heckman had a good New York Times column the other day about the economic benefits of universal early childhood education. Despite the documented benefits of this intervention for poor kids, however, the U.S. is pitifully slow to act. Why?

Heckman says:

Why aren’t we moving forward and changing our ways by making investments in life-changing early childhood development for disadvantaged children? Two things: unfounded doubt and fear of doing things differently.

I would add another reason: gender.

Too many people are stuck on the idea that young children need to be with their mothers all day. Not only is early childhood education good for children, and equalizing economically, it’s also good for women and would help reduce gender inequality by promoting women’s employment – especially for single mothers – and reducing work-family conflict.

Universal, public, early childhood education: Good for children, reduces economic inequality, equalizes opportunities, maximizes public investment in human capacities, reduces gender inequality, and maybe even helps break the grip of hyper-parenting. Or, we could just fight some more wars.

The image above is borrowed from this Heritage Foundation blog post, which, let’s just say, is not going to win anyone a Nobel prize in economics.

17 thoughts on “Early childhood education is good for mothers, too

  1. There is a lot that has to be considered. How many hours a day should these children be in school? If it’s less than eight hours it’s going to be hard for the mother to find a job that will be flexible enough for her to drop off and pick up the child on time. At this point it’s getting to be daycare. Also, how old should the children be? Most children aren’t ready before age two or three to be in a preschool environment.

    As for the hyper-parenting: the worst offenders are the uber-professional, high-achieving couples, not SAHMs or single moms.


  2. In Stuttgart, Germany, where I have a family connection, the local government provides subsidized (with a sliding scale based on family income and number of hours the child attends) early education for young children below the age of 3, when the state-supported kindergarten begins. The children are in small groups with several care providers for each group, and they seem to do well and enjoy each others’ company.

    This is affordable early education, offered on the premise that children are the future of the country, and that it is in the best interests of the government, at all levels, to make sure that all children have a good start in life. It helps mothers, too, but that doesn’t seem to be the main justification for the system.

    I only hope that someday we in the U.S. will come to the understanding that all children are important.


  3. Like Leigh, I agree but with caveats – starting age, quantity of care, conditions of care. Unless kids are from a very disadvantaged background, based on my knowledge under the age of 2 they are better off with a carer who can give them plenty of individual attention (and ideally love!) interspersed with interaction with other children. So a parent / grandparent / some kind of close person, or a nanny if you can afford it. I also believe that in France this kind of care starts at age 3 – the writer above says before 3 in Germany but exactly when is that?

    I come from a country (Australia) where long day care is available for babies aged from 6 weeks of age – it would not be common but we introduced a 14 weeks paid maternity (not parental – which leaves single dads / gay fathers a bit stuck) leave scheme last year and employers have to keep a mother’s job open for a year. So I am not sure why it would even need to happen unless the mother / parent really couldn’t handle being with her baby and it was therefore in that sense better off being with carers who could safely care for it. But even 14 weeks I think is too early. I know in the US this is all pipe dreams and there is little in the way of pre-school education / childcare other than privately supplied and (from what I have read) poorly regulated care, but I would be interested in thoughts on exactly when univsersal early childhood education should begin, and what options should be available to children and their parents between birth and starting some sort of universal scheme, and how should parents’ workforce ‘attachment’ be managed in that interim period?

    Just a minor question!


  4. I think the lack of support for investments in early childhood education for disadvantaged kids is part of the “punish the poor” ethos that’s rampant in today’s GOP, even if it makes no economic sense in the long term. See, e.g., yesterday’s comments by Cramer (R-ND) justifying cutting federal nutrition assistance programs with Thessalonians: “If anyone is willing to not work, let him not eat.”

    If it’s a primarily a gender story, you’d also expect to see substantial backlash against wealthy women who put their very young kids in “enrichment” programs to give them a leg up on Ivy admissions in 17 years. If there is such a backlash, it’s not nearly as prominent in the public discourse as “punish the poor.”


    1. I am optimistic about the political future of early pre-K. As krippendorf notes, it will never be successful if sold only as beneficial for low income families (or for working women as Philip observes). But, as I’ve watched my grandchildren thrive in DC’s growing public school pre-K, the uber-professional, high-achieving parents in their neighborhood have been scrambling to get their 4 year olds enrolled in what otherwise is not an especially popular public school system. Like social security, while pre-K disproportionately benefits low-income families, its appeal to the middle class can provide the political support it needs for the long run.


  5. Publicly subsidized early education/childcare has so many positive impacts, I am very optimistic. In many wealthy countries, these programs do include infants and toddlers — and the only way to make care for these kids affordable is through government subsidies. In research with collaborators Michelle Budig, Irene Boeckmann, Stephanie Moller, Eiko Strader, Beth Wemlinger, we document that government subsidized care lowers risk of poverty, increases household income, increases maternal employment and wages, and decreases motherhood penalties and gender gaps.


  6. “Universal, public, early childhood education: Good for children, reduces economic inequality, equalizes opportunities, maximizes public investment in human capacities, reduces gender inequality, and maybe even helps break the grip of hyper-parenting”

    If it does any one of the above, I will sell you a bridge.

    You had a good article going, but you blew it up unnecessarily using the last paragraph. Reduces inequality, equalizes opportunity? Come on Dr. Cohen, even you don’t believe this!


    1. Why is this so hard to believe? Conservative economists have argued for this. Skepticism is always good, so vijay shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. But the logic is persuasive. Children of low income families enter 1st grade well behind middle-class children. The difference is smaller when they enter at 4 years. Children seem to learn at roughly the same pace while in school. So, if you start school earlier, the family-income difference stays smaller.

      Vijay: what’s the matter with these ideas?


      1. The influence of early (preschool and headstart) childhood interventions have been investigated extensively. The conclusion is that these interventions impact elementary and middle school performance, BUT, not beyond. The classic reference for this is:
        1. http://nieer.org/resources/research/PreschoolLastingEffects.pdf
        The conclusions of that publication are that they saw some improvements but they did not persist, but nevertheless we should continue doing the interventions, and I quote a few highlights:

        ECLS-K “These studies find that for children entering kindergarten, Head Start has no significant effects on cognition and negative effects on socio-emotional development and behavior as children enter kindergarten”

        Perry Study “While there was no persistent effect on IQ, the study found a persistent effect on achievement tests through middle school, a finding consistent with results from the meta-analysis of all relevant research literature”

        Why you ask? It is easier to impact 4th grade and eighth grade test scores and learning outcomes. However, by high school, the cognitive ability of the student becomes more important. From california standard tests we get the difficulty or the lack of “stickiness:” of elementary school test score improvement through high school, plotted by a reviewer.

        2. http://educationrealist.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/cstnewmathprof.jpg

        The proficiency level goes way down; you can plot these figures from 1991 and 2011 and see that the rises in scores dont stick up to high school. Fourth grade math scores rise, but 12th grade scores flatline, See first line and onward from below.

        3. http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/2012/Have-increased-graduation-rates-artificially-depressed-Americas-12th-grade-performance.html

        I can go on and on with references, but you can hunt them too. School teachers have been shouting hoarse for years. (see, http://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/algebra-and-the-pointlessness-of-the-whole-damn-thing/) The SES and racial differences will persist in scores and grades (as in real life).

        Dr. Cohen knows all of the above. I was just stunned by his last paragraph. Mothers (in some case fathers) staying home with preschoolers are hyper-parents? Seriously? I can bet the entire section of the blog post starting at “Universal, public, early childhood education: Good for children, reduces economic inequality, equalizes opportunities, maximizes public investment in human capacities, reduces gender inequality, and maybe even helps break the grip of hyper-parenting.” Has no proof. He just believes that.



  7. OK that last line was snark. However, there are ph.D these available and in progress that show the impact or lack of early childhood interventions, and attributed to the following (I am not typing references any more because all parties are sick of me by now):

    1. Cognitive ability, and the SES/race impacts
    2. Non-linear progression of education (meaning, you need to know 4+3 before algebra, and (X=y)^2 before differential equations. However, knowledge of the first step does not mean you can understand step 2)
    3 Ninth grade bulge

    and a number of other things, but I am way beyond the quota of allowed posts here.

    I promise I wont post any more.



  8. (At the risk of alienating the one person who is reading my comments, I plod on)

    I am sold Dr. Cohen. Before I plug it to my bosses in HHS, as any bureaucrat or corporation will do, let us perform a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed Headstart on steroids, aka, “HeckmanCare”.


    The basis for the cost estimate is the number of babies born in 2010 through 2012 multiplied by cost per year for daycare per baby.

    2012 births = 3,952,937
    2011 births = 3,953,590
    2010 births = 3,999,386

    (1) Total = 11,808, 000 (give or take a few)
    Source NVSS reports Vol 61, N0 1, Vol 62 No 1, Vol. 62, No 3.

    Expenditure per child for child care is not readily available. My wife estimates 1000 $ per month. In the absence of data , I take it to be the average cost per pupil in all schools, from

    (2) That is 11.339 in 2009 dollars, which I escalate to 12,000 $ in 2014 to account for inflation.

    I multiply (1) * (2) to give about 140 billion dollars annual expenditure to provide “HeckmanCare” for all children 2- 4 in the year 2014.

    I have told my bosses that I should simply move money from two headings “Iraq War” and”afghan War” under the Pentagon budget to fund this mandate.

    Now, onto benefits.

    (A) Approximately 9.7 million women gave births in 2010-2012. Free from hyperparenting requirements, they will proceed to be gainfully employed, and be more equal. Can we have an estimate of how much the 9.7 million contribute? (My snarky boss says give the 140 billion to the 9.7 million women at 15 K per person to stay home and look aftre there kids, but that might lead to even more hyperparenting)

    (B) I have been told I cannot use test scores to estimate the impact of HeckmanCare, even if all children have the accelerated headstart and should be ready to improve the scores. Can we find any other criterion or parameter like school graduation rate, college completion rate and employment to estimate how the children will be improved? What measurable criterion can be used?

    Without this exercise, I am afraid the accelerated headstart program will be a nonstarter.



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