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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

Recipe for Success: Invest More in Early Education

I am not a baker. But, like so many others, I have tried my hand at a couple of recipes during these turbulent times. I quickly learned two things: the order of the recipe matters; and, second, flour is essential. Our education system has yet to take the first lesson to heart.

Instead of adding the ingredients at their proper point and in their correct ratio — we try to rescue the recipe by adding missing ingredients in the final stages. The flaws in our approach impact lower-income students the most. Unlike their wealthier classmates, students in more financially insecure families and communities cannot fix their recipe through private sector solutions. That’s why we need the public sector to alter its approach so that every student has the start they deserve. Improving the start means shifting resources from higher education – which disproportionately serves students from higher income brackets – to early childhood and K-12 services.

Our education system essentially waits to add the most important ingredient — financial investment — until the end of the academic timeline. Total expenses per full-time student at a public four-year postsecondary institution is north of $45,000. On the opposite end of the spectrum, total expenditures per student at public elementary and secondary schools is well below $20,000. These numbers aren’t perfect measures of how and when we invest in our students, but an obvious problem stands out: we hold back much of our investment until many of our students have already moved away from the education system. This is especially true at elite universities, where 64 percent of students come from families that rank in the top ten percent of the income distribution. Overall, 87 percent of high school graduates from the highest-income quartile continue on to higher education. On the opposite end of the spectrum, only 61 percent of graduates from families in the lowest quartiles follow the same path.

This is an approach that leaves society short of its potential because it denies young Americans the chance to reach their full potential. Rather than spending exorbitant resources on the few fortunate enough to make it to higher education, we need to zero in on giving student a better chance at thriving from the start. It’s time to follow a new recipe — one that focuses on giving our youngsters the ingredients they need to grow right from the start. These ingredients include access to affordable health care, healthy food, high-speed Internet, clean air, and educational opportunities even before pre-school.

Whereas lower income students rely on the public sector to provide many of these ingredients, wealthier students generally don’t have to worry about these societal missteps because they need not fret about getting the right ingredients from public institutions — they have a private stash of the essentials. That’s why it comes as no surprise that social class is a significant and perhaps the largest predictor of a child’s educational success. Though money can’t buy brains, it can buy the ingredients that help a young mind grow into a mature one.

Listing these ingredients helps make their impact obvious: wealthier students, on average, have a community of support at home and in the classroom; wealthier students aren’t usually saddled by sickness — they breath clean air and access preventative care; wealthier students don’t experience a summer slide — they attend camps and have access to other programming that keep their minds and bodies active after school, on the weekends, and during prolonged breaks; and, wealthier students don’t have to search for high-speed Internet — they can get online and download the latest lecture in the blink of an eye. Access to these ingredients has an immediate and, arguably, irreversible impact on how students perform in school from Day One.

By the start of kindergarten, income has already altered the trajectory of our students. Even at this young age, researchers have discovered a full standard deviation difference in math and reading scores between children in the highest and lowest fifths of the socioeconomic status distribution. This divergence — known as the achievement gap — could be corrected by simply following the recipe — reallocating financial resources to early childhood education and other forms of support for young families. According to Professor and Nobel Laureate James Heckman of the University of Chicago, early interventions in the education, nutrition, and health of disadvantaged children can have lifelong effects on the student. Though the expenses on higher education are often justified by the higher incomes earned by graduates, the returns on investments in early education are greater and more diffuse. Consider that investing in high-quality early childhood education can result in an annual return of 13 percent per child. What’s more, these initial investments have generational impacts: “early childhood education programs,” based on Heckman’s research, “can increase economic mobility for two generations by freeing working parents to build their careers and increase wages over time.”

In a world forever altered by COVID, the inability of lower income students to access the ingredients required for early development is even more obvious and concerning. Before COVID-19, schools were more than just classrooms. For many lower income students, their school was a shelter, a doctor’s office, a gym, an art studio, and their sole connection to the digital world. So the near overnight shift to online education left many students and their families without access to the wraparound services that held together an otherwise fragile situation.

That’s why it’s time to do more than just think about how best to help students learn in a radically different educational environment, educators and policy makers must also think about how to surround students from the start with the support services that are essential to their well-being.

In terms of specific policies, states should first evaluate the gaps in their support for early childhood development. To the extent income gaps are discovered as early as pre-school, states should commit to prioritizing closing that attainment gap – otherwise every dollar spent on other educational systems is a dollar that’s supporting a biased system that perpetuates inequality. Once these gaps have been discovered and funding commitments have been made, states should focus on making financial and educational investments in children ages 0-5. In particular, states should focus on creating universal childcare programs for kids. This policy would immediately free families from financial burdens that inhibit their ability to invest in their children: some low-income families spend 52.7 percent of their income on child care expenses according to the Center for American Progress.

Education funds aren’t strictly fungible. It will be a tough fight to convince stakeholders to more substantially invest in early childhood education and development, but now’s the time to upend the old way of doing things. It’s not that higher education isn’t important, it’s that our current allocation of resources denies millions of Americans the start they deserve to reach their academic and personal potential.


Kevin Frazier is pursuing a MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School and JD at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He’s the founder of Neighbors for Nonprofits. Reach him on Twitter: @kevintfrazier



Edited by: Andrea Alvarez Martin

Photo by: Markus Spiske