It's not all over at age 3

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). 

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 students—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 that the earliest years are a singular window for growth that slams shut once children turn three. 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 children’s development—and it does not—that wouldn’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 research—with its heavy reliance on PET scans, MRIs and studies of lab rats—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, we need to know the elasticity – how much can we change child outcomes with another dollar of new spending? So if you’ve just read a government report calling for more bucks for early childhood programs, you might find Mead’s paper a good counterweight.

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6 Responses to It's not all over at age 3

  1. Daniel says:

    I’ll have to have a good read of this one…it fits well with an article over at The Brisbane Line by Michael Gard ( who talks about the fact we ignore the evidence because it doesn’t suit what we think are “common sense” ideas, even if those ideas are wrong.

    Promoting the importance of early childhood is important, but not to the point of dogma. Sara Mead needs to be congratulated for bucking the trend.

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  3. vivy says:

    I wonder how much of this has to do with childhood development and how much of it has to do with scientists and policy makers making morally motivated decisions regarding how parents (especially the mother) should raise their children. Is there no end to the creative packing of old and tired moral assumptions?

  4. nick says:

    Indeed vivy, the process of parenting doesn’t end at three – this hype/trend/whatever that our little ones are ‘programmed’ for life by age three is quite tiresome frankly

    its a great journey our children are all on and its not simply framed up by a few flashcards, overpriced PisherFice “educational” toys and forcefed homework to two year olds…its not rocket science to make rocket science – simply be there for your kids and at the dinner table and for tuck in time…and share the wonder of growing up with your children.

  5. Pretty much the most effective thing you can do that works for individuals and populations, on a lot of criteria like health, learning ability, resilience, criminality etc, is to ensure that pregnant mothers are well fed and that kids are well fed to at least around 8 or so.

    Sounds easy but rarely achieved.

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