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More preschool, please

Want to improve how high-risk children will do in school and later in life? Get them into preschool.

[P]reschool seemed to improve performance on a variety of “non-cognitive” abilities, such as self-control, persistence and grit. While society has long obsessed over raw smarts — just look at our fixation on IQ scores — Heckman and Cunha argue that these non-cognitive traits are often more important. They note, for instance, that dependability is the trait most valued by employers, while “perseverance, dependability and consistency are the most important predictors of grades in school.”

….Furthermore, the gains from preschool appear to be so significant and consistent that, according to Cunha and Heckman, investing in early childhood education is just about the most cost-effective way to spend public money. The economists calculate that, for every dollar invested in preschool for at-risk children, society at large reaps somewhere between eight and nine dollars in return.

This isn’t really news, of course. Everyone in the audience for the most recent Houston Have Your Say could have told you this. Knowing it and doing something about it are two different things, of course. There are other things, equally cheap and effective, that can be done as well. Author Mark Kleiman, writing about this particular preschool experiment in his book “When Brute Force Fails”, said:

[I]n a well-evaluated experiment in upstate New York, nurse home visitation for expectant mothers whose demographic profiles put their children at high risk of poor outcomes reduced the arrests among children of those mothers by 69 percent compared to the matched control group. If that result is even close to correct, nurse home visitation focused on high-risk mothers is surely cost-effective as crime control — compared, for example, with prison building — even ignoring all its other benefits and cost savings.

Both links via Kevin Drum. If those who like to yammer about controlling the growth of government spending were serious about it, programs like these are exactly the sorts of thing they’d be latching on to. They’re small expenditures that yield large long-term savings. They bend cost curves, in some cases by a lot. You want low-hanging fruit, this stuff is practically on the ground.

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