How Human Capital Theory Sells Early Education Short: Revaluing Early Education through the Capabilities Approach

Cary A. Buzzelli

Early childhood education programs, particularly Head Start, have been both the hope and frustration of early childhood education advocates, policy makers, and early childhood educators. The hope was, and is, that early childhood programs increase school readiness and lead to successful school experiences for young children living in poverty. The frustrations are, and have been, in the results of program evaluations, which find little evidence to support program effectiveness. Initial evaluations were disappointing at best (Westinghouse, 1969). Results from the recently released report on the third grade follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2012) did find some positive effects for children who attended for one year. However, when comparisons were made at the end of first and third grades between children who had attended and those who had not, most differences had dissipated. The authors note that long-term or “sleeper” effects could emerge for these cohorts in the future years as has been found for participants in the Perry Preschool Program (Heckman, 2008; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997). These studies found significant differences between children enrolled in the Perry Preschool Project and those in the control group. Among the findings were that children who participated in the Perry Preschool Project had fewer referrals for special education services, higher graduation rates, and higher rates of employment. Additionally, recent studies by the economist James Heckman and colleagues that examined long-term outcomes for the Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Parent Child Centers found significant differences on a variety of measures (Heckman, 2007, 2008; Heckman, Grunewald, & Reynolds, 2006; Heckman, Malofeeva, Pinto, & Savelyev, 2008).

These studies make a strong case that investment in quality early childhood education has positive outcomes for children, their families, and society. These studies also provide important and much needed support for early childhood education programs. The positive outcomes and returns on the investment in programs for young children are especially important for policy makers and program developers. Yet, these studies are based upon a human capital approach to development (Becker, 1964), which focuses primarily on economic returns to the exclusion of other forms of return. Critics of the human capital approach point to this as their major concern because such a focus greatly limits the value and role of education (Robeyns, 2006; Saito, 2003; Unterhalter, 2009).

The purpose of this chapter is to outline how a human capital approach to human development, while providing empirical data in support of early education, provides a limited view of the goals and impact of early education programs on children’s development, and thus, ultimately undervalues the contribution of such programs to children’s development. A second purpose is to describe how the capabilities approach as developed by Sen and Nussbaum (Nussbaum, 2011; Sen, 1992, 1999) creates a more inclusive perspective on children’s development; this has significant implications for the ways we conceptualize and assess the value of early education programs.

The chapter is in four sections followed by concluding remarks. The first section presents an overview of human capital theory and its approach to human development. Consistent with this view is the use of cost-benefit analysis for evaluating the effectiveness of early education programs. The second section offers a critique of the human capital approach by considering how its focus on measurable returns on economic investments through cost-benefit analysis limits our understanding of the full and complex contribution of early childhood programs to children’s development and well-being. In the third section drawing on the writings of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, the central features of the capabilities approach are described. The capabilities approach provides a richer theoretical and philosophical grounding for early education programs and their influence on children’s development. The fourth section describes how the capabilities approach addresses the critiques of the human capital approach. In doing so, the capabilities approach has important implications for early childhood education.

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