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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

The value of early education [edited transcript + audio]

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio



[Dustin Dwyer:] Children’s brains do not come preprogrammed.

[Jack Shonkoff:] Literally, our environment shapes the architecture of our brain.

[Dustin Dwyer:] If that environment is dominated by the stress of poverty, and a lack of learning opportunities, the brain is physically changed.

[Clancy Blair:] The effects of poverty on childen’s development are pervasive and they last throughout childhood and into early adulthood. There’s no question about it.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] You’re listening to a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio. I’m Dustin Dwyer.

New research is telling us a lot about how poverty affects young children, and how high quality preschool can turn it around.

[Teacher:] “Okay boys and girls, where’s our square club?”

[Dustin Dwyer:] For the next hour, we are going to learn about why so much depends on good preschools, and what’s in it for the rest of society.

[Tim Bartik:] “You could analyze early childhood programs as one way of boosting the quality of the local labor supply.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] That’s ahead on State of Opportunity from Michigan Radio. But first, the news.

[Dustin Dwyer:] It’s 7:30 in the morning on a Monday.

The 4 year- olds at Rogers Lane Head Start in Wyoming are drawing lines with a ruler, and cutting out strips of paper.

Jazz Webb is here helping her daughter Makayla. Webb wears sweat pants and a black jacket. She’s groggy. She works two jobs. She never gets enough sleep.

It seems like this moment couldn’t possibly be significant. Just a four year old, a sleepy parent and some construction paper.

And yet, there’s a surprising amount of evidence that moments like this matter a lot.

You’re listening to State of Opportunity on Michigan Radio. I’m Dustin Dwyer. For the next hour, we are going to talk about why moments like this matter for children, and for the future of our state.

And that story will take us into the world of preschool, its history in our country, whether it works, why it works and whether it ultimately deserves your taxpayer dollars.

But we are going to start this hour by talking about the brain.

You know, you hear people say all the time that babies and toddlers have brains like sponges.

But the truth is that scientists are really just beginning to understand how a young brain develops. And one of the things they’ve learned - just in the last few years - is that poverty can actually have a biological effect on the growing brain.  

So that’s where we’re going to start the hour, with the story of a brain growing up in poverty – told to us by some of the scientists on the leading edge of new research.

Those were the voices of Lise Eliot, Jack Shonkoff, Martha Farah and Clancy Blair. Philip Glass was on piano, playing the role of the brain.

So, this brain science we just heard about is pretty new, but the idea of having programs to help young children in poverty is not new. And coming up, we’re going to unearth some old audio from one of the biggest moments in early childhood education in our nation’s history.

[President Johnson:] “I believe that this is one of the most constructive and one of the most sensible and also one of the most exciting programs that this nation has ever undertaken.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] 47 years after the launch of Head Start. Has it worked?

The answer, coming up in about 10 minutes on our State of Opportunity special from Michigan Radio.


From Michigan Radio, this is STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. I’m Dustin Dwyer.

We’re talking this hour about the importance of early learning, especially for kids in poverty.

And I want to get back to two people we met at the start of the hour.

[Jazz Webb:] My name is Jacelyn Webb. Everybody calls me Jazz, and I’m Makayla’s mom.

[Makayla Webb:] Makayla’s mom.

[Dustin Dwyer:] Tell me about Makayla.

[Jazz Webb:] Makayla’s very talkative, active. 

[Makayla Webb:] I talk too much.

[Jazz Webb:] And she’s got a crazy personality.

[Makayla Webb:] Hey, no I don’t!

[Dustin Dwyer:] Makayla, tell me what you’re going to be when you grow up.

[Makayla Webb:] “A grown up.”  

[Dustin Dwyer:] So, earlier, we heard some of the science about how growing up in poverty can affect young children, how it can even affect the biology of their brains.

I’m not going to lie, researching that stuff is a little overwhelming. You start to wonder how any kid in poverty can succeed.

But then you meet a kid like Makayla, and a mom like Jazz.

[Jazz Webb:] “I just want them to do a little better than what I did, and never give up. No matter how hard times are, don’t give up.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Jazz knows a little bit about that. She’s a single mom with three kids and two jobs.  

[Jazz Webb:] “If I’m not at one job, I’m at the other job, and if I’m not at neither one, I’m at home asleep. That’s pretty much, that’s my day. “

[Dustin Dwyer:] And how do you have time for kids?

[Jazz Webb:] “On my days off, like today.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] So, this was recorded a couple months ago, and I checked in with Jazz last week, and she says she’s actually down to one job now, which is a lot less stressful.

But the setup she was describing earlier can be a problem for some families, and it’s one of the reasons there’s a learning gap for kids in different kinds of homes. If you’ve got two parents, and each of them has only one job, you’ll get more time with them than if you have one parent who has two jobs. That’s just math.

The numbers don’t look too good for Makayla and her two brothers.

But the math doesn’t take into account a determined parent, a creative parent.

[Jazz Webb:] When they was babies, I used to sing songs, make up songs with numbers or anything like that. Or, as I did stories, I made them throw whatever part of the story they wanted to throw in and I kept going story to story like that, adding stuff in that they said.

[Dustin Dwyer:] If you remember from earlier, this kind of back and forth is exactly what the experts say kids need early on to develop language skills. Jazz says she didn’t have a lot of time for that when she had two jobs.

But you can tell that the fact she did it at all has made a difference.

Makayla one of the most talkative, most assertive four year olds I’ve ever met.

[Jazz Webb:] “It gets her in trouble here. Because, I feel like as she’s getting older, she thinks she can talk to anybody any way. She don’t think about it first, and she just talks. So that’s what gets her in trouble a lot.”

And this is where the story could take a turn. Makayla is smart, crazy smart, but like many four-year olds, she doesn’t have a lot of self-control. She doesn’t have the skills we heard about in the last segment, the skills that psychologists call executive functions.

These are the skills that many children in poverty never get a chance to learn, and it holds them back for their entire life.

But Makayla has lots of time to learn, and a parent who’s trying to teach her. That’s more than a lot of kids get.

Makayla also has another big advantage. She does something that experts say makes a huge, huge difference. She goes to preschool.

[Teacher:] “OK boys and girls, where’s our square club?”

Dustin Dwyer: In the fall, I spent a morning in her class at Rogers Lane Head Start in Wyoming, just south of Grand Rapids. The school is in a one-story brick building on a residential street, not far from where Makayla and Jazz live.

Nearly a million kids every year go through some sort of Head Start program. But it’s not as if all of them are getting a standard education. The federal government administers Head Start through grants, which go out to 1,600 separate agencies around the country.

The annual cost, as of 2011, was about $7.5 billion.

When a lot of people talk about improving preschool in America, they use examples from small projects with impressive results. But if you want to understand preschool as it exists now for most children in poverty, you have to look at Head Start.

And the fact is a lot of people have questions about whether Head Start is really doing a good enough job for kids.

We’re going to get to some of those questions later. First, let’s just talk about what happens in Makayla’s class.

The basics are not much different from any preschool in America. The preschool formula is kind of standard. There’s an opening activity, there’s circle time with introductions and songs, there’s individual choice time, there’s a snack, there’s outside time.

[Mary Hockwalt:] “The schedule is essentially the same.”

Mary Hockwalt runs the Kent County Head Start program, which includes Rogers Lane. She says there is one way Head Start is different from other preschools.

[Mary Hockwalt:] “Head Start has a lot of requirements. And it’s good. It’s just trying to get it all in is a challenge.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Take what happens after snack time– which itself has to fulfill certain nutritional requirements. After eating, every student gets a little paper cup, some water and a tooth brush. Good oral hygiene is a requirement of Head Start. Every child is required to get a dental checkup after they enroll. They also get hearing and vision screenings, and a physical. Head Start also offers social workers to meet with families at their homes, and they have bus service, which is pretty much unheard of for private preschools.

[Mary Hockwalt:] The other thing that makes us different is our parent involvement. We can’t do this without our parents

[Dustin Dwyer:] This is the kind of sentiment you will hear from any administrator at any school in the country, from preschool through high school. But Head Start has institutionalized parent involvement in a way that’s pretty unique. Every Head Start location has an organization called the Parent Policy Council. The parents on this council have the power to approve budgets, hire teachers and fire teachers.

When you look at all these aspects of Head Start, from the parent policy councils to the dental checkups, it’s not clear sometimes what they have to do with preschool.

But the thing is, Head Start was never just intended to be about preschool. To understand what it is about, we have to go back to 1965. May 18th, exactly.

[President Johnson:] “On this beautiful spring day, it’s good to be outside in the Rose Garden.”  

[Dustin Dwyer:] President Lyndon Johnson stands in front of reporters. Joining him is Sargent Shriver, a lifetime civil servant who would later be remembered as the architect of Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”

[President Johnson:] “This is a very proud occasion for him and for us today because it was less than three months ago that we opened a new warfront on poverty. We set out to make certain that poverty’s children would not be forevermore poverty’s captives. We called our program, Project Head Start.”  

And though the origins of the project could be traced back to the Kennedy administration, it was on this spring day that Head Start became a reality.

[President Johnson:] “Today we’re able to announce that we’ll have open and, we believe, operating this summer coast to coast, some 2,000 child development centers serving as many as, possibly, a half a million children. This means that nearly half the preschool children of poverty will get a head start on their future. These children will receive preschool training to prepare them for regular school in September. They will get medical and dental attention that they badly need. And parents will receive counseling on improving the home environment.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] This first summer of Head Start would really just be a pilot project compared to what the program has become in the 47 years since the announcement. But it’s clear from Johnson’s speech that he never saw Head Start as just an education program. For him, this was an ambitious, all-out assault on the cycle of poverty.

[President Johnson:] “It shows that we are recognizing that poverty perpetuates itself. Five and six year old children are the inheritors of poverty’s curse, and not its creators. Unless we act, these children will pass it on to the next generation like a family birthmark. This program, this year means that 30 million man years, the combined life span of these youngsters, will be spent productively and rewardingly, rather than wasted in tax-supported institutions or in welfare-supported lethargy. I believe that this is one of the most constructive, and one of the most sensible and also one of the most exciting programs that this nation has ever undertaken.”  

[Dustin Dwyer:] You are listening to a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio. This hour we’ve been talking about the importance of preschool for kids in poverty. We just heard some old, scratchy tape of President Lyndon Johnson announcing Head Start in 1965. 

Now, more than 47 years since that announcement, Head Start has served tens of millions of children in poverty. Its total cost: more than $130 billion.

So, did it work?

That simple question has a maddening answer.

Let’s start by trying to answer it on the small scale. If you talk to a parent, or a teacher, you will hear that Head Start is clearly, undeniably helping kids.

Sarah Traxler teaches the class at Rogers Lane Head Start that we visited earlier. That visit was actually in the fall, not too long after some of the kids first enrolled.

[Sarah Traxler:] “And, you know, they’ve already, just in the few months that they’ve been here, made a lot of gains as far as writing their name, recognizing some letters in their names.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] This is not a subjective measure for Traxler. She actually has to track these things – another requirement of Head Start.

[Sarah Traxler:] “Let me show you, I have a list with everybody’s name in the class on it, so I make my little notes here.    And then I’ll go later today to the computer, and I’ll enter the information that I have so then I can go back and see … then that keeps track of it for me.

[Dustin Dwyer:] And, so far so good. But of course, this is one teacher, one class. There are 1,600 Head Start agencies around the country. Many of them have more than one class. Almost a million kids every year go through Head Start.

We want to know if it’s working at that level. Is it ensuring, as President Johnson promised, that poverty’s children would not become poverty’s captives?

[Tim Bartik:] “The research on Head Start is, at this point, clearly contradictory.”

Dustin Dwyer: That’s Tim Bartik. He’s an economist at the UpJohn Institute in Kalamazoo, and he’s one of the most rigorous researchers in America who studies early education.

[Tim Bartik:] “On the one hand, there’s been a number of very good studies, non-experimental studies, but good control groups, good comparison groups, that strongly suggest significant long-term effects of Head Start.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Bartik says one of these studies compared siblings, when one went to Head Start and one didn’t. Researchers found that child who did attend Head Start was more likely to graduate high school and go to college, among other benefits. Another study looked at counties with high poverty rates where Head Start programs were put in place in the mid-sixties, and compared them to other counties with high poverty rates that did not get Head Start that early. In this study, the counties where Head Start was in place actually had fewer child deaths, possibly because of the Head Start health screenings. The study also found evidence that counties with Head Start had more kids who graduated high school.

[Tim Bartik:] “So, you have that research, then you have this other research. There’s been a random-assignment experiment with Head Start that Congress mandated and they’ve been following up. And what they found is that, in terms of math and reading test scores, a lot of the effects of Head Start seem to fade by the time kids are in first grade. You can find the effects when kids are in kindergarten, but by first grade or so, a lot of the effects seem to have faded. So, what on earth is going on here?”

[Dustin Dwyer:] What’s going on, basically, is that after 47 years and $130 billion in investment, we really don’t know whether Head Start is working.

Or, at least, we can’t agree on how to measure whether it’s working.  

It may very well be that what Head Start does, what all preschool does, is not something that really shows up on an elementary school math or language test. Bartik says what could be happening is that kids in preschool are developing what he calls soft skills – social skills, emotional skills, attention, focus, perseverance, those executive functions we keep hearing about. And that’s what leads to higher graduation rates and higher earnings 20 years later.

But, Bartik says, even if you take this view, the results from Head Start decent, but still not as impressive as many other preschool projects.

[Tim Bartik:] “So what lesson do you take from that? I mean, the lesson I take from that is not that preschool doesn’t work. The lesson I take from it is, preschool works if it’s run in a high quality way. Head Start needs to up its game. And, in fact, people are trying to do that.”

[President Obama:] Thank you, Thank you everybody, please have a seat.

Dustin Dwyer: In November of 2011, President Obama stood in front of an audience in Yeadon, Pennsylvania to announce what is possibly the biggest regulatory change in Head Start’s 47 year history.

[President Obama:] Now, under the old rules governing Head Start, there just wasn’t enough accountability. If a program wasn’t providing kids with quality services, there was no incentive to improve.

To understand what the Obama administration changed, you need to remember that the federal government doesn’t actually run Head Start organizations around the country. Instead, Head Start funding comes in the form of grants. Until 2011, those grants were pretty much guaranteed to be renewed.

But now, if a local Head Start doesn’t meet certain criteria, the Obama administration will open up its grant to competition. 

[President Obama:] “If classrooms are unsafe, if finances aren’t in order, if kids aren’t learning what they need to learn, then other organizations will be able to compete for that grant.” We’re not just going to put money into programs that don’t work. We will take money and put them into programs that do. If a group’s going to do a better job for the community, then they need that support.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] About a hundred and thirty Head Starts across the country were forced to re-apply for federal funding in 2011. Five of them were in Michigan. The government was supposed to announce the winners of the new grants by the end of 2012. That didn’t happen. So now, those programs are just waiting to hear.

Mary Hockwalt is not one of the people waiting on an answer. Kent County Head Start met the criteria to keep its funding.

And she says she’s in favor of accountability. But even she isn’t exactly clear on how the government is applying the new rules.

[Mary Hockwalt:] “What’s confusing to many Head Starts, I think is that sometimes there’s reports of one instance, one thing that was out of compliance, or what they call “a finding,” and they’re theoretically thrown into re-competition, that’s a concern.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] The new standards have seven criteria that each Head Start must meet. Sounds simple enough, but within that, there are subparagraphs and reporting requirements and dates that certain things must be submitted. Hockwalt’s point is, what if a local Head Start is doing everything right, but the paperwork gets turned in a week late? As written, the new federal rules say that Head Start could have its grant put up for outside competition.  

If you’re an outsider trying to understand all this stuff, it doesn’t take long for it all to sound like just a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense.

And it gets back to the point from earlier, that we haven’t really decided what we’re trying to get out of Head Start. Do we want it to improve test scores for kids, or do we want it to lift kids out of poverty? Those are similar goals, but they’re not the same goals. And Head Start is suffering from the confusion.

[Dustin Dwyer:] Does it feel like we know what we’re trying to get out of this – or at least, do you feel like the government, and the structure you’re asked to operate under, knows what it wants from you? 

[Mary Hockwalt:] “Boy that’s a really good question.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Maybe we should ask an even more basic question: Why are we even doing preschool? If Head Start has been around a half century, cost well over a hundred billion dollars and we still can’t seem to figure it out, why should we as taxpayers fund preschool at all?

Because when it’s done right, it can have big economic benefits.

[James Heckman:] You are getting rates of return of somewhere between 6 to 10 percent per annum. On like a passbook savings account, that looks pretty good by current standards.  

[Dustin Dwyer:] The economic case for preschool. We’ll get into it in about 10 minutes on our State of Opportunity special from Michigan Radio.”

This is a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio, I’m Dustin Dwyer. We’re talking this hour about the importance of early education for kids raised in poverty.

We’re talking, mostly about preschool.

One thing we haven’t really talked about yet is that one of the things preschool does is it shifts some of the responsibility for a child’s development onto someone else.

If we’re talking about public-funded preschool programs that responsibility in some sense is being shifted to taxpayers like you and me.

To some people, it may start to sound like we’re suddenly going to be on the hook for raising someone else’s kids.

In a few minutes, we’re going to talk about whether it’s worth our money.

But I think we should talk first about how preschool actually came into existence in this country. Because Head Start is not where that story begins.

I want to introduce you now to a guy named:

[Maris Vinovskis:] “Maris Vinovskis.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] And he’s:

[Maris Vinovskis:] “The Bentley professor of history at the University of Michigan.

[Dustin Dwyer:] What Vinovskis studies is the history of education policy in the United States.

And he told me that preschool was big in the early 1800s.

Vinovskis says the idea actually came from Europe, during the industrial revolution. Americans traveling abroad saw these new preschools popping up in England.  

[Maris Vinovskis:] “And what they did then is they adopted the idea that we should have two and three and four year olds going to schools in America and giving the mothers a chance to either work, or relieving them of having as much child care, because the family size was much larger.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Vinovskis says the original impulse was not all that different from what Lyndon Johnson imagined for Head Start more than a hundred years later. It was a way to help kids in poor families.

But, just like with Head Start, the idea spread to middle class parents as well.

[Maris Vinovskis:] “By 1840, when we have very good data from Massachusetts, 40 percent of three year olds are now in school. And this is a very high number.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] It’s a high number even by today’s standards. And these kids were actually learning things. Vinovskis says children were expected to be able to read the Bible by age four or five. 

But then this guy comes along, a doctor.

[Maris Vinovskis:] “A very prominent doctor of mental health, Amoriah Brigham,”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Who was, in fact, the founding editor of what later became called the American Journal of Psychiatry. 

Brigham had some ideas about the education of children. And a shocking claim.

[Maris Vinovskis:] “That his medical practices showed that young children who were exposed to early learning, are more apt to later become insane.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Insane!   

Brigham put his ideas in a book, “Remarks on the Influence of Mental Cultivation and Mental Excitement upon Health.” You can read the entire book online, and it is quite a read.

Brigham argues that early learning taxes young brains before they’re ready, causing excessive blood flow that damages the brain, leading both physical and mental problems, and even early death.

This book was a sensation, according to Vinoskis, and it ended the preschool movement in America.

[Maris Vinovskis:] “By 1860, there are almost no 3 or 4 year olds in Massachusetts schools.”

That’s the way it stayed for a hundred years. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, parents still believed that young brains couldn’t handle learning.

And people forgot that preschool had ever been a thing.

[Maris Vinovskis:] “We discovered infant schools 20-30 years ago. Before that, historians didn’t even know they existed.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Vinovskis says when early learning advocates started pushing for Head Start in the 1960s, they all thought that it was a brand new idea.

You are listening to a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio. I’m Dustin Dwyer. And next I want to take you to a large, sun-lit room in Battle Creek.

In one part of the room, Diego pushes little police cars and trucks across the carpet. In another,  Maya puts plastic toppings on a toy pizza, and asks her mom to take a bite.

Larayia Todd is pressing stamps on a sheet of white paper, while her dad Daron watches.

This is not preschool. This is a playgroup put on by Early Childhood Connections in Battle Creek. We should say that this playgroup is funded by the Kellogg Foundation, which also funds State of Opportunity.

The playgroup is for kids who aren’t in any kind of preschool. It meets every Friday. Every Friday, Daron brings Larayia.

[Daron Todd:] “She’s very energetic. She likes to play a lot. She’s really into learning, she really wants to go to school. This here is almost like a type of school for her, so it’s a school setting so she likes it. It makes her feel like she’s, you know, a little older.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] How old are you right now?

[Larayia Todd:] Three.

[Dustin Dwyer:]  What do you like to do here?

[Larayia Todd:] Like to stamp.

[Dustin Dwyer:] You like to stamp? What’s your favorite stamp?

[Larayia Todd:] Star. 

[Dustin Dwyer:] Larayia has been hoping for a chance to take her stamp skills to the next level, and go to preschool.

But there wasn’t enough room in the public preschools for Larayia to go. When I talked to them in November, Daron told me they were on a wait list until a spot opens up.

[Daron Todd:] “It’s been a while now. But hopefully it should be soon.” 

[Dustin Dwyer:] That was November. I called Darron last week. He says Larayia is still on the waiting list.

In Michigan, there are two main programs that offer free preschool to children in low-income families: Head Start and the state-run Great Start Readiness Program. But there still aren’t enough seats available. GSRP doesn’t even accept three year olds like Larayia.

The governor is expected to increase funding for GSRP in the budget coming out next month.

We’re going to talk a little later about what’s on the table for expanding preschool.

But first, let’s just ask whether we even should be spending money on preschool. We’ve talked about how it can help kids in poverty. But we haven’t yet talked about what the rest of us get out of it, and whether it’s worth the money.

So let’s bring back someone we heard from earlier, economist Tim Bartik from the UpJohn Institute. He didn’t start out studying preschool. He studied economic development strategies, like business tax incentives or new sports stadiums.

Then he got an email from an advocacy group that asked him to analyze the benefits of preschool on purely economic merits.

[Tim Bartik:] “My first reaction was this was a crazy email and a really bad idea. It didn’t make any sense to me”

[Dustin Dwyer:] But then he says he thought about what preschool does, which is of course to develop children’s abilities. And that should eventually make them better workers, which should have an economic effect.

For Bartik, this was a different way of looking at things. Usually, when we talk about economic development, we’re talking about either trying to grow or attract businesses – with tax breaks, infrastructure improvements or whatever.

[Tim Bartik:] So theyre usually very much focused on what an economist would call labor demand, that is, we’re trying to affect directly, the behavior of firms.  

[Dustin Dwyer:] We want the firms, because the firms want workers.

[Tim Bartik:]  “And what occurred to me was that you could analyze early childhood programs as one way of, rather than working the labor demand side, working the labor supply side, and boosting the quality of the local labor supply.”  

[Dustin Dwyer:] That way, the firms would want us, because we have the best workers.

Bartik analyzed the numbers, trying to figure out how much of an economic improvement you could get out of early childhood programs. And that turned into a book, called “Investing in Kids.” It is a 350-page investigation of the economic returns of preschool.

Spoiler alert: preschool pays off. It easily pays off just as well as other types of economic development, such as tax breaks.

And Bartik isn’t the only economist who’s come to this conclusion. There’s a whole literature now on the economic merits of preschool.

Probably the most famous economist working on this literature is James Heckman.

He’s famous because in 2000, he won the Nobel Prize in economics. He’s a professor at the University of Chicago. He looks sort of like you’d expect an economist to look: white hair, dark suit, round glasses.

And he can get pretty excited about data.

In the 1990s, he came across some data that was not exciting . At the time, there was a lot of interest in genetics. There was new research showing that a person’s IQ was largely determined by genetics, and that IQ was by far the best predictor of how successful a person could be in life. Basically, people were stuck where they started out.

[James Heckman:] “So I got a little depressed by that. And then I realized that you actually had – there was - evidence – scattered evidence – that suggested that if you started early enough, you could actually make a difference.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Some of that evidence came from a project that started in Ypsilanti in the 1960s. It was a famous project – you might have heard of it – called the Perry Preschool Project. There were a lot of aspects to Perry, but one important thing to know is that all of the kids enrolled in the program were from high poverty homes. And, on one measure at least, the program was a failure.

[James Heckman:] “The kids were entered at age 3 and 4. By age 10, the IQs of the kids in the program are no smarter than those randomized out – no difference.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] This supported the depressing research Heckman had come across in the 1990s. There was no benefit to IQ for the kids in Perry preschools.

[James Heckman:] “But yet, 40 years later, they have much greater social and economic participation: higher earnings, the girls go to school much more, the boys are making money, they’re employed much more than the boys who weren’t in the program, much less crime.”

These results might sound familiar, if you were around for our discussion on Head Start. It turns out this is common in preschool studies. Test scores often fade in elementary school, then other benefits show up later in the form of higher graduation rates, higher earnings and less crime.

[Dustin Dwyer:] Heckman realized these benefits have an economic value.

So he did what economists do: a benefit cost calculation for the Perry Preschool project. He says every dollar invested in Perry created a rate of return for society of about 6- 10 percent per year.

The result, just like the result Bartik got, was pretty conclusive.

But it still didn’t explain why preschool pays off. And we need to understand that.

The key for Heckman was to stop caring so much about IQ.

[James Heckman:] “The science of education, the so-called science of education in the 1960s was all based on cognitive psychology. And the measure of what schools created was IQ. And so you say, ‘Okay, IQ is very important.’ And it is important. But what it also missed was there are all these other traits that somehow got lost.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] These were the traits that were emphasized at the Perry preschool project. Heckman says the Perry preschoolers planned out their activity for the day, they did the activity and then they reviewed the activity. It was an exercise of keeping kids on task, teaching them persistence and self-control.

[James Heckman:] So it was teaching these social skills, some people say teaching character. And that’s the hidden dimension of this program, which is totally ignored in the current public policy.

[Dustin Dwyer:] But it’s a hidden dimension that just keeps coming up in this discussion. It’s not about ABCs or numbers. It’s about the child’s ability to control themselves to focus on work. Heckman calls it character. Bartik called it soft skills. People who study the brain call it executive functions.

It’s hard to measure these things on a test.

But to Heckman, and to many other researchers, these are the skills that make the most difference for children’s success, and for the success of our economy. That’s why economists care about preschool.  

I told Heckman that legislators in Michigan would be considering an increase to public preschool funding this year, and asked if he had any advice. He said, look at Perry.

[James Heckman:] “So, I would say the legislature should use its local wisdom in Ypsilanti.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] We’re going to try to tap into that local wisdom next. But first I want to remind you, you’re listening to a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio.

So, the Perry Preschool project is still in operation, run by an organization called HighScope. Anyone can go check it out.

I mean, I haven’t, yet. But my colleague Jennifer Guerra has, and she let me borrow some of her tape to share with you.  

The kids come in around 8:30, and Jennifer says they make their way to a big, blue rug for some  story time.   

[Teacher:] “Buenas noches elefante.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Then they read the message board, to learn what’s new in the class that day.

Then it’s time to plan.

[Teacher:]“If your name starts with D, go to your planning table…”

[Dustin Dwyer:] This is part of what makes the Perry Preschool model unique, something they call, “Plan, Do, Review.”

[Teacher:] “Hayden, are you ready to make your plan?”

“I’m going to play with the little blocks.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Once the students plan their activities for the day, they have about an hour to do those activities. And it’s all child-initiated play, whether it’s mushing up play-doh into a birthday cake, building a fort out of blocks, or crawling around like a puppy.

The preschool director, Sue Gainsley, says once the hour is up, the kids return to their small groups and review what they did.

[Sue Gainsley:]  “And what has been shown is children who are intentional and make these plans often develop more complex play. They begin to think about materials in different ways.

[Dustin Dwyer:] And she says they develop the kind of skills we’ve been talking about, they’re focused and thoughtful, they have the self-control to carry out their plan.

Larry Schweinhart is president of High Scope, which runs Perry. He says a high quality pre-k program must have four main ingredients:

Engaged parents,

A way to evaluate students

Active Learning

Good teachers

The last ingredient is the hardest to carry out for most preschools.  It costs money to hire highly trained teachers with a bachelor’s degree. Many preschool programs pay their teachers less than half of what most k-12 public school teachers make. Schweinhart says 2/3rds of the cost of a high quality pre-k goes to pay teachers, and if you don’t spend the money, you won’t see the results that Perry has gotten. And the HighScope Perry Preschool costs a lot: Roughly $11,000 per child, per year. That’s more than three times the cost of the state funded Great Start Readiness pre-k program.

Jennifer pressed Schweinhart on this high cost:

[Jennifer Guerra:] You’re effectively asking a lot of people to help pay for other people’s children to get into preschool.

[Larry Schweinhart:] “Because if you don’t pay for them with early childhood education, you’re going to pay more for them, because they’re going to suck up services from the community and from the schools. They’re going to be winding up being very costly because they’re engaging in crime.  And we wind up paying through the nose.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] Schweinhart ultimately says the question is: pay now, or pay later?

First, there is no chance that the state of Michigan is going to increase preschool funding to the level that Perry does. Not anytime soon anyway. But the HighScope foundation actually did an analysis of the state’s current preschool program and found good results.

And Governor Snyder said in his State of the State last week that he wants a funding increase to allow more kids to attend.

Right now the state estimates that 29,000 four year olds meet the eligibility requirements to attend free state-funded preschool, but there’s not enough money to fit them in. Advocates were hoping that the state would increase funding enough to have spaces for those four year olds, which would cost an estimated 130 million dollars a year.

[Governor Snyder:] Um, I don’t believe we can accomplish all that, and I’m open to coming up with creative ideas to get there. But I think it’s important we make a major commitment, a major budget commitment, to getting as many kids as possible, and get us on a path to getting all those kids in Great Start and an early childhood program.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] The number that’s been tossed around since the speech would be an increase of about $75 million. That would still leave thousands of four year olds without access to preschool, but it’s still a pretty huge increase compared to the current budget.

And maybe we should just leave it at that.

But if you heard the Governor’s speech last week, you know that preschool was not one of its main topics. It really only took about 30 seconds. His biggest request was for more road funding.

A billion dollars a year in road funding. $100 million was too much to spend on preschool, but the governor is fighting for 10 times that amount with roads.

And it’ll require, essentially, a tax hike. The governor estimates it’ll cost about $120 per year per vehicle.

Tim Bartik of the UpJohn Institute says universal preschool for every four year old in the state, not just disadvantaged four year olds, would cost about $30 per person a year.

Now, we all know how bad Michigan’s roads are. And every analysis I could find supports the basic claim the governor is making – that roads have a good return on investment.

But so does preschool.

What the governor says about making our road funds solvent is:

[Governor Snyder:] “It’s time.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] What he says about giving all disadvantaged four year olds a chance at preschool, is:

[Governor Snyder:] “Um, I don’t believe we can accomplish all that.”

[Dustin Dwyer:] The governor’s official budget proposal should be out within a few weeks. We’ll see what he decides we can accomplish with preschool.

You’ve been listening STATE OF OPPORTUNITY from Michigan Radio.

This documentary was informed by the Public Insight Network.

Thanks to Jennifer Guerra and Sarah Alvarez. Vincent Duffy and Sarah Hulett did the editing. Tamar Charney is the executive producer of State of Opportunity.

This program is a production of Michigan Radio, a broadcasting service of the University of Michigan.

I’m Dustin Dwyer.

[Funding credit:] Support for State of Opportunity comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.