Ed Sector’s Sara Mead (a former coauthor of mine) has a radical new policy paper out today – arguing that maybe policymakers are overemphasising early childhood programs (especially silly ones like giving Bach CDs to new parents).Â
Lawmakers have been swayed by the argument that if they invest in building brainier babies, they’ll collect dividends later in the kids’ lives in the form of savings on job training, corrections and welfare. As the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children has argued: “While more than 85 percent of a child’s core brain structure is formed by age five, only 2.5 percent of state and federal investments in education and development have occurred by that time.”
More darkly, some have seized on the importance of early brain development in an effort to excuse elementary and secondary schools from the difficult task of working hard on behalf of all studentsâ€”on the grounds that by the time many students get to school they are already hopelessly and permanently behind.
There’s a problem, however, with the new conventional wisdom about building brighter babies: It’s based on misinterpretations and misapplications of brain research. While neural connections in babies’ brains grow rapidly in the early years, adults can’t make newborns smarter or more successful by having them listen to Beethoven or play with Einstein-inspired blocks. Nor is there any neuroscience evidence that suggests thatÂ the earliestÂ yearsÂ areÂ a singular window for growth that slams shut once children turn three.Â To the contrary, the social programs with the strongest evidence of positive long-term impacts, including high-quality preschool programs, take place outside the zero-to-three window. …
Even if neuroscience evidence did show unequivocally that the years from zero to three are the most important for childrenâ€™s developmentâ€”and it does notâ€”that wouldnâ€™t tell us how, or even if, governments can intervene effectively during that time to improve child development or life outcomes. In other words, neuroscience researchâ€”with its heavy reliance on PET scans, MRIs and studies of lab ratsâ€”is meant to help academics understand how the brain the works; it is not meant to inform social policy.
Importantly, by misusing the neuroscience research, early childhood advocates might undermine the very thing they so desperately desire: more funding for young kids. By not focusing on effectiveness, early childhood advocates encourage policymakers to make sloppy decisions about how to invest in young children, and over time the failure of unproductive programs may undermine public support for all types of early childhood investments. This is particularly shortsighted since we have strong evidence that some early interventions are highly effective. Dozens of research studies, for instance, have shown that high quality preschool can significantly improve life outcomes.
In thinking about new early childhood intervention programs,Â we need to know the elasticity – how much can we change child outcomes with another dollar ofÂ new spending?Â So if you’ve just read a government report calling for more bucks forÂ early childhood programs, you might findÂ Mead’s paper a good counterweight.