Chapter 17 of their book discusses the mixed evidence on the success of early childhood interventions designed to boost IQ. By no means does the evidence they discuss rule out the possibility of boosting IQ through programs that enrich the learning environments of young children. Indeed, the authors acknowledge that there are strong indications that very intensive programs can be effective. Half-hearted interventions like Head Start are definitely not effective. [My emphasis]
Yet funnily enough, Australian policymakers are falling over themselves to invoke Heckman as the reason for implementing low-impact, universal, HeadStart-style, early childhood intervention programs. Such programs probably do no harm, and they may even do some good. But it’s very unlikely they have the same high cost-benefit ratios as the super-intensive,Â super-targetedÂ programs that HeckmanÂ spends his timeÂ advocating. Programs like Elmira, Perry Preschool, and Abecedarian had highly-trained early childhood staff working with disadvantaged kids for up to 8 hours a day, from an extremely young age.
So next time you hear a politician or bureaucrat citing Heckman in support of a new initiative, why not ask him or her: are you advocating a universal light-touch program, of the kind that Heckman hates? Or the kind ofÂ targeted, expensive program that won’t affect most voters’ children, but might make a real difference to the life chances of the very poorest?