Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Biggest bang for the buck" 

I've been meaning to write this for a few days. I saw a link from Lileks on the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation. I was reasonably sure I knew what that was about, after hearing Strom interview Art Rolnick a couple weeks ago. Sure enough, MELF is the attempt by Rolnick and others to see if the economic research on benefits from early childhood education are something one can intentionally do (as opposed to finding benefits from early childhood ed in natural settings, where the addition of education is perhaps the by-product of something else.)

United Health is giving money away to boost its corporate image, and MELF got $2 million. MELF is funding a $30 million pilot project in St. Paul.

Early childhood programs show "the biggest bang for the buck," Rolnick said. A $20,000 per-child, two-year investment could show a return of up to 20 percent for society each year of the child's adult life -- in the form of higher income, taxes paid, staying off welfare and staying out of jail.

His proposal: A market-based system to fund scholarships for low-income families. They would get scholarships of $10,000 to $13,000 per year per kid to use for high-quality child care.

...An eventual endowment of $1.5 billion to $2 billion, he said, would fund the program for nearly all Minnesota families in poverty.

"This one-time investment," Rolnick said, "is roughly the cost of two stadiums."

In the Strom interview, Rolnick states that the project will provide results that will be public and assessable by independent researchers (focusing on 1200 families in Frogtown.) I don't know all the details of the program -- the program includes counseling of parents on educational choices, so if a parent has two preschoolers, you only need one counseling, but there'd be a scholarship for each child -- but the issue is one of scalability, as the originators clearly understand.
Small-scale early-childhood-development programs have been shown to work, but can their success be reproduced on a much larger scale? There are reasons to be skeptical; some recent attempts at scaling up early-childhood development have been disappointing. But based on a careful review of past and current programs, we believe that large-scale efforts can succeed if they incorporate four key features: careful focus, parental involvement, outcome orientation, and long-term commitment.
The project seems something worth trying; it's a good thing that both liberal and conservative groups can agree to put effort into finding out whether the larger scale is viable. Here's a status report of what they've done so far.

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