This post was written by Kevin Milligan of the Department of Economics at the University of British Columbia.
There was a flurry of media coverage earlier this week on the full day kindergarten programs that are being rolled out in BC, Ontario, and PEI. I am here to expand a bit on some of the thoughts I had about it. The claims made about the economic benefits are, in my view, exaggerated. See pages 11-12 of the Pascal report from Ontario. Lots of others have made similar economic claims, but this is sufficient to make my point:
The Ypsilanti, Michigan, study has spent 40 years tracking the cost-benefits of a preschool and family intervention program on a group of inner city minority children. It calculates $17 in health, justice, and social welfare savings for every $1 spent on the program.
Heckman calculates a 7:1 return on public investment for programs for young children compared to a 1:1 payback from adult education.
These are curious sources of evidence for the benefits of a universal program. I'm always surprised, in a 'Tony Clement suggested the Scandinavian model for data collection to preserve our privacy' kind of way, when early learning advocates cite Heckman in defence of universal programs. Heckman is not, in anything I have ever read, in favour of universal programs. He is a strong believer in *targeted* interventions for at-risk kids. He says so here here and here, as a start. As for universal programs, he says things like:
Functioning middle-class homes are producing healthy, productive kids. We don't measure their output very well in the national income and product accounts, but it's very well documented that professional working women spend an enormous amount of time after work in child development. It is foolish to try to substitute for what the middle-class and upper-middle-class parents are already doing.
That doesn't sound much like he thinks middle class children would benefit in the same way. In fact, he uses the word 'foolish'. Heckman may be right or he may be wrong, but this is the guy all of the pro-universal full day advocates are quoting.
The 'Ypsilanti' study mentioned above is more commonly referred to as the Perry Preschool study. It involved a randomized assignment of severely at-risk children into an intensive early learning environment in the 1960s in Ypsilanti Michigan.
By 'at risk' here I mean they had IQs in the range of 70-85 (borderline mental impairment), among other factors. By 'intensive', I mean that there were on average 4 teachers for 20 students and weekly 1.5 hour home visits to help the parents.
Most fair-minded observers would agree that the effects found in that study are large (although there are quibbles about how to value murder victims and other such esoterica).
But, and this is the key here, those impacts were found for the Perry Preschool kids. You have evidence on a bundle of program elements on a severely at risk population. Generalizing from that to Joe middle class in the Ontario program being offered in the 2010s involves a large leap of inference that, myself, I find dubious.
The new full day Kindergartens may be the bees' knees, or they may not. That's a big question on which I'd like to hold judgment. But I can say more decisively that the evidence used to justify the programs has been exaggerated.
P.S: I should express my thanks that at least they are looking to evidence as a guide to policy. One step better than some other governments around this country . . .