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The Costs of Cost-Benefit Analysis on the Benefits of Early Education

Three critiques of cost-benefit analysis are examined in this section. The critiques are, first, that not all outcomes of early education programs can be monetized; second, because cost-benefit analysis cannot assess the contributions of specific program components, it is not always possible to determine what accounts for a program’s success; and third, cost-benefit analysis cannot explain how contextual and societal factors may support or hinder individuals’ abilities to participate in programs and to achieve program goals. Taken together, these critiques illustrate how cost-benefit analysis fails to fully assess the complex nature of early education programs. Each is examined briefly below.

Examining the first critique, Chiappero-Martinetti and Sabadash (forthcoming) note that even though cost-benefit analysis is effective for measuring returns on investments, it provides at best an incomplete picture of program outcomes. Their concern is that not all educational outcomes and benefits considered important by program developers can be translated into dollar amounts making them measurable as returns on investments. They go on to say that, “marketable benefits, derived from higher education, in terms of higher wages and greater employment stability often do not serve as a goal in itself, but rather enlarge the range of human choices” (p. 11). They conclude, “Measuring education-derived outcomes by only monetaristic variables would leave a substantial part of benefits behind” (p. 11). Related to the extent that cost-benefit analysis measures only mon- etaristic variables, typically in the form of single metric measures such as test scores, these have increasingly become overemphasized as the sole means of assessing the value of early childhood programs (Adair, 2014; Joshi & Smith, 2012). Joshi and Smith note that one “policy component of neo-liberalism is the expansion of a competitive testing culture. Shifting attention from student needs to student performance reflects the promotion of market competition and the rush to secure limited resources in a capitalist system” (2012, p. 183).

As for the second critique, while cost-benefit analysis can document some returns on investments in early education, it cannot always provide explanations for the success or failure of programs to yield returns on investments. In the Perry Preschool age-40 follow-up study (Belfield, Nores, Barnett, & Schweinhart, 2006) the authors comment on the differences between Perry Program participants and the control group saying “that one cannot identify which components of the High/Scope program make it so effective” (p. 186). The authors conclude that as a result it would be necessary to implement the entire program for all children since it is unknown which aspects work for which groups of children. Similarly, cost- benefit analysis of programs that do not succeed are unable to show which aspects of the program account for the lack of outcome benefits. Thus, cost-benefit analysis may err in two ways: when studies do show returns on investment in early education programs successful program components cannot always be identified and conversely, when programs show no returns on investments, it is unclear which components were ineffective.

Regarding the third critique, that cost-benefit analysis ignores contextual and societal factors that influence participation in programs, Vally and Spreen note in their critique of the human capital approach, “Education is perceived as a panacea for problems that have their root causes elsewhere in the wider economy and society” (2012, p. 179).

Indeed, several researchers have outlined how racism, sexism, and classism can be obstacles to participation in early education programs (Penn, 2010; Robeyns, 2010; Unterhalter, 2009; Walker, 2009), all of which are unaccounted for in cost-benefit analysis.

These critiques draw our attention to how the human capital approach and the use of cost-benefit analysis on measurable returns fails to fully account for the rich and complex contribution early education programs can make to children’s development.

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