Poor kids first, please

I’ve written before about the way in which research on the benefits of targeted high-impact early childhood intervention has been used to justify low-impact universal programs. Fortunately, it seems I’m not the only one who’s worried about this. From the Wall Street Journal blog, via New Economist:

James Heckman, University of Chicago economist and 2000 Nobel prize winner, has become a key advocate for pre-school, with his work routinely cited by everyone from Sen. Hillary Clinton to state legislators. But his interest in early education happened in a roundabout way.

In the early 1990s, while doing work evaluating government job programs, he noticed that the reason minorities weren’t going to college at a greater rate was not because they couldn’t afford it but because of “ability gaps.” Minorities were more likely to be lacking in both cognitive and non-cognitive abilities, making it more difficult for them to excel – or even stay — in school.

He grew interested in finding out when those gaps first occur and was surprised to discover that they take place in a child’s formative years.

“I happened to notice that ability gaps opened up very strongly at ages 3, 4 and 5,” Mr. Heckman says, adding those gaps “were so predictive of a range of behavior.”

That discovery helped fuel his belief that intervention efforts need to happen while kids are still very young, before they even get into Kindergarten. “If we wait too late the costs of remediation are high and they’re higher than anything we’ve paid so far,” he said. Mr. Heckman is part of a growing cadre of economists — Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke among them — who see pre-school as a cure for inequality. (Read more in a page-one WSJ article here.)

In 2004, he and a colleague produced a paper with some landmark findings, including that pre-school could reduce crime, keep people off welfare and boost taxes down the road. His paper has been cited by legions of pre-school supporters, who tout the economic benefits as a strong reason to fund pre-school.

But while Mr. Heckman is a proponent of early education, he believes it should be targeted solely at disadvantaged kids and not all kids, as some advocates propose.

“You go where the marginal returns are the highest and they’re highest with disadvantaged children,” he says. He fears that all the economic data – including his own — has produced a “rush to judgment” that has convinced some camps to pre-school for everyone will produce the greatest return.

“It worries me a lot,” he says. “Science doesn’t support universality … we have to approach it more cautiously.”

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3 Responses to Poor kids first, please

  1. derrida derider says:

    It’s true that the evaluations that have yielded these high rates of return are of preschool programs for the disadvantaged, and that these should be the first priority (especially in the US, where disadvantage is often much more severe than here). But note Heckman merely asserts (correctly) the absence of evidence on the effects of more universal programs. This is not evidence of absence.

    Given that we know of that for a given child the biggest influence on outcomes is in the early years, and given that later years of education still have very respectable rates of return, I reckon the case for spending some money on more universal preschool programs still seems pretty good. At the very least we should be setting up all those broad childhood panel studies (LSAC, Dunedin, etc) with the educationalists and economists, and not just the medicos, in mind.

  2. christine says:

    I vaguely recall a study that suggested that while there were cognitive gains from regular pre-school for kids whose mothers were relatively less educated, there was a negative effect for kids whose mothers were relatively more educated. Sorry I can’t recall the ref – I only remember because I recall feeling the burden of guilt weighing a bit heavier. I think I thought at the time the source was credible (coz I wouldn’t have worried otherwise).

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    Christine, I’ve always associated this with Janet Currie (who I heard say it in a seminar once), but do let me know if you find the ref, as I’d like to cite it.

    Of course, there are clearly exceptions to the notion that better-educated parents provide better childcare. Case in point: I’m typing this with my 6-month old on my lap.

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