Early Education Seen in a Human Capital Framework

The idea that education leads to the accumulation of capital in the form of more productive workers and that this returns a profit to those who invest in it goes all the way back to Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, the man considered the father of capitalism and whose The Wealth of Nations is considered the first modern work of economics.  It is ironic that in this day and age, the human capital rationale for investing in more and better early education continues to receive short shrift in this most capital-oriented of countries while China and other rising powers forge ahead of us on this front. Could it be that our policymakers are not sufficiently persuaded?

If so, Childhood Programs and Practices in the First Decade of Life: A Human Capital Integration, recently published by Cambridge University Press, provides all the evidence even the skeptics among our political leadership will need in a single volume. In it, leading scholars in human development and early childhood education discuss the effects and cost effectiveness of the most thoroughly studied model early childhood programs as well as state and federal programs. Head Start, Early Head Start, the WIC nutrition program, the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, the Nurse-Family Partnership, the Perry Preschool Program, and state pre-K are among them. Also discussed are various school reform strategies.

The book applies a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding and improving programs, practices, and policies with a goal of fostering increased human capital. This is reflected in the editors chosen for the assignment: Arthur J. Reynolds is a professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota and director of the Chicago Longitudinal Study. Arthur J. Rolnick is senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and associate economist with the Federal Open Market Committee. Michelle M. Englund is a research associate and affiliate member of the Graduate Faculty in Child Psychology at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. Judy A. Temple is an associate professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.

State-funded early childhood education is well represented in the book. Georgetown University’s William T. Gormley who has studied Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program extensively provides his analysis of the impressive gains made by that program in Tulsa.  Our NIEER team, including co-director Ellen Frede and fellow NIEER researchers Kwanghee Jung, Cynthia Esposito Lamy (now at Robin Hood Foundation), and Alexandra Figueras, contributes a chapter on the long-term effects of New Jersey’s well-regarded Abbott Preschool Program. Robert G. Lynch, Washington College, provides a state-level synthesis of the cost effectiveness of public investment in high-quality pre-K.

In addition to Arthur Reynolds, other NIEER affiliated authors in this book include Clive Belfield (Queens College, City University of New York), Henry Levin (Columbia University), Robert C. Pianta (University of Virginia), Lawrence J. Schweinhart (HighScope Educational Research Foundation), and Edward Zigler (Yale University).

Childhood Programs and Practices in the First Decade of Life: A Human Capital Integration emanates from a conference by the same name held by the Human Capital Research Collaborative. That’s the organization sponsored by the University of Minnesota and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that explores links between human capital and economic development, public health, education, and other connections. With this effort, they have gone a long way toward accomplishing their mission.