Early Scope

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Larry Schweinhart is an early childhood program researcher and speaker throughout the United States and in other countries.  He has conducted research at the HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Michigan, since 1975 and served as its president since 2003.  He has directed the HighScope Perry Preschool Study through age 40, the Michigan School Readiness Program Evaluation, HighScope’s Head Start Quality Research Center, and the development and validation of the Child Observation Record.  Dr. Schweinhart received his Ph.D. in Education from Indiana University in 1975.  He and his wife have two children and five grandchildren.

The quality of early childhood programs may be defined as the standards met along a small number of program dimensions involving early childhood teachers and what they do in their programs. These dimensions involve teacher preservice education and number of children per teacher, teacher inservice training in and use of a valid child development curriculum, teacher engagement of parents in contributing to their children’s development, and regular assessment of curriculum implementation and children’s development. High-quality early childhood programs meet these standards while low-quality programs do not.

 

The case for quality in early childhood programs is powerful. High-quality programs, such as the longitudinally studied HighScope Perry Preschool Program and Abecedarian Child Care Program, have been shown to have long-term effects and strong economic return on investment. Low-quality programs do not have these effects. Brain research makes it clear that children are developing critical skills in their early years from birth onward.

 

At the same time, the case against quality in early childhood programs is implicit and virtually universal. It has to do with simple economics, the allocation of scarce resources. Young children, and their advocates, have little economic or political power. The standard for child survival in early childhood programs is much lower than the standard for their thriving in early childhood programs, for these programs contributing positively to their development. Families are expected to provide for young children, and the role of government towards them is less well established. Long-term effects are harder to measure and link to early childhood programs than immediate effects. But, mainly, competing alternatives for spending money often take priority over spending money on young children. 

 

Early childhood program quality, which might be simply represented as the cost per child for programs, never takes complete precedence over competing priorities. Quality is always determined as some balancing point between maximum contribution to young children’s development and spending nothing at all or merely enough to keep a program open without regard to its quality or effectiveness. This balancing point is the result of the allocation of scarce resources among competing priorities. The obvious way to calculate the cost of a program is to multiply the cost per child for the program times the number of children in it. But other considerations determine the amount of money determined to be available for the program, an amount generally less than the other calculation, leaving only two alternatives – either spend less per child or serve fewer children.

 

The argument for maximizing economic return on investment is powerful and easily understood.