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The data supporting a surefire investment keeps growing, but investment hasn’t kept up. Steven Barnett, an economist at Rutgers says if you want to beat private-sector rates of returns, put your money on kids.

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess invited Barnett and Dr. Sarah Roseberry Lytle of the University of Washington to brief the council committee Burgess heads that handles education issues.

Being an economist, Barnett didn’t get touchy-feely about helping kids and doing the right thing. Instead, he used multiple studies and real-world examples to make a case for more investment in high-quality preschool programs. You can watch his presentation on the Seattle Channel, as I did.

Barnett said he wasn’t there to make a plea on behalf of poor children, though they benefit the most from effective early education, but to say better education is a benefit to everyone and that the middle class shouldn’t be left out.

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Most American children aren’t enrolled in high-quality preschool programs, he said, but there is no longer any question about the effectiveness or need for high-quality early education.

Barnett, who is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, told the council that looking at individual studies of preschool effectiveness, a person could find something to prove almost any point about their value, but when you look at them all together, as he and his team did, the picture becomes clear. Not all programs are equal. The high-quality programs nearly closed the gaps between groups of students from disparate backgrounds, so that kids from poor families, for instance, arrived at school nearly on par with middle-class children. Lesser programs made smaller improvements, but Barnett stressed the need to get the biggest bump early because some of the effects do fade. That’s partly, he said, because poor children stay poor. Nonetheless, the improvement children carry forward yields dramatic returns.

People who had high-quality early education do better in school than those of similar background who didn’t. They’re also much less likely to be convicted of a crime, and they contribute more to the economy as adults. The list of positive outcomes is l
ong and it saves money over time, especially tax money. Schools don’t have to spend as much on special education or discipline programs. Communities save on criminal-justice and health-care costs.

Barnett discussed the costs versus savings and gains in an analysis of three leading programs. All of them delivered returns far higher than their costs and one of them delivered 7 percent or more in real returns annually. That success can be duplicated, but sometimes we’re just too cheap.

Barnett said researchers looked at several large-scale comprehensive programs and were disappointed by the results they saw. They looked more closely and found that programs designed to do too much, with too few resources, weren’t effective.

“The large-scale programs that don’t deliver the results have not been designed to duplicate the programs that deliver the results,” he said. “They were designed to be cheaper.”

To get those praiseworthy results, he said, a program needs the right design, high standards, adequate funding, and that’s the minimum. It also needs continual monitoring and improvement. There are programs that meet those guidelines and get great results.

In New Jersey, where he works, 31 school districts have adopted the highest standards as a result of a court order, and the state pays all the costs.

The New Jersey program sent teachers to school to earn degrees, doubled their pay and assigned them coaches. Quality and results rose.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw asked about relations with teacher unions, and Barnett said, “Most people want to do a good job,” they just sometimes don’t know how to do better. Coaches help with that, and they aren’t supervisors, so the union doesn’t object to their presence.

He said most teachers got better, but about 3 percent were fired. No one who has a poor rating is tolerated.

Washington should learn from New Jersey. Leaders in this state understand the importance of early education but haven’t entirely bet our money on it.

Recently I visited with teachers in three Seattle preschools, and they all said it’s fine for the state to urge them to go get the education that would help them do better jobs, but they said they couldn’t afford it on their salaries.

The women I spoke with are in early education because they care about the kids. They want to do all they can for them, but they need help developing the skills to become better educators.

At the end of the council briefing, Burgess said that we know now that for young children a purposeful learning experience is better than just baby-sitting.

Lytle took the council through research done at the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences that shows how vital early learning is to life outcomes. The time from conception to kindergarten is critical.

Burgess said he’s proud that Seattle is one of only four major cities that fully funds the Nurse Family Partnership, a proven program that starts before birth to help give children a better start in life. Imagine the effect of that combined with universal high-quality early education.

Maybe you’re not gleeful about paying taxes, especially when times are tight. It makes sense to direct our dollars where they will yield the best return over time, and to let the people we choose to make allocation decisions know voters will support them when they invest smartly.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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