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, viaÂ 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 werenâ€™t going to college at a greater rate was not because they couldnâ€™t afford it but because of â€œability gaps.â€ Minorities were more likely to be lacking in both cognitive and non-cognitive abilities, making it more difficult for them to excel â€“ or even stay â€” in school.
He grew interested in finding out when those gaps first occur and was surprised to discover that they take place in a childâ€™s formative years.
â€œI happened to notice that ability gaps opened up very strongly at ages 3, 4 and 5,â€ Mr. Heckman says, adding those gaps â€œwere so predictive of a range of behavior.â€
That discovery helped fuel his belief that intervention efforts need to happen while kids are still very young, before they even get into Kindergarten. â€œIf we wait too late the costs of remediation are high and theyâ€™re higher than anything weâ€™ve paid so far,â€ he said. Mr. Heckman is part of a growing cadre of economists â€” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke among them â€” 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.
â€œYou go where the marginal returns are the highest and theyâ€™re highest with disadvantaged children,â€ he says. He fears that all the economic data â€“ including his own â€” has produced a â€œrush to judgmentâ€ that has convinced some camps to pre-school for everyone will produce the greatest return.
â€œIt worries me a lot,â€ he says. â€œScience doesnâ€™t support universality â€¦ we have to approach it more cautiously.â€