Skills, Schools and Synapses

Team Heckman has a new paper out (NBER version here, free version here) on early childhood intervention. Much of the ground has been covered by previous Heckman papers, but one new aspect is a 5-point guide to designing what he thinks will be effective early childhood programs.

  • Who should be targeted? The returns to early childhood programs are the highest for disadvantaged children who do not receive substantial amounts of parental investment in the early years. The proper measure of disadvantage is not necessarily family poverty or parental education. The available evidence suggests that the quality of parenting is the important scarce resource. The quality of parenting is not always closely linked to family income or parental education. Measures of risky family environments should be developed that facilitate efficient targeting.
  • With what programs? Programs that target the early years seem to have the greatest promise. The Nurse Family Partnership Program (Olds, 2002), the Abecedarian Program and the Perry Program have been evaluated and show high returns. Programs with home visits affect the lives of the parents and create a permanent change in the home environment that supports the child after center-based interventions end. Programs that build character and motivation that do not focus exclusively on cognition appear to be the most effective.
  • Who should provide the programs? In designing any early childhood program that aims to improve the cognitive and socio-emotional skills of disadvantaged children, it is important to respect the sanctity of early family life and to respect cultural diversity. The goal of the early childhood programs is to create a base of productive skills and traits for disadvantaged children living in culturally diverse settings. By engaging private industry and other social groups that draw in private resources, create community support, and represent diverse points of view, effective and culturally sensitive programs can be created.
  • Who should pay for them? One could make the programs universal to avoid stigmatization. Universal programs would be much more expensive and create the possibility of deadweight losses whereby public programs displace private investments by families. One solution to these problems is to make the programs universal but to offer a sliding fee schedule to avoid deadweight losses.
  • Will the programs achieve high levels of compliance? It is important to recognize potential problems with program compliance. Many successful programs change the values and motivation of the child. Some of these changes may run counter to the values of parents. There may be serious tension between the needs of the child and the acceptance of interventions by the parent. Developing culturally diverse programs will help avoid such tensions. One cannot assume that there will be no conflict between the values of society as it seeks to develop the potential of the child and the values of the family, although the extent of such conflicts is not yet known.
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1 Response to Skills, Schools and Synapses

  1. Yes, no argument from me about the advantages of early intervention. The tricky part of the discussion is in point five. As someone who has developed and implemented early community and school-based early family support programs, I know how true this is. My programs typically sought improved school outcomes (in literacy) for children but focussed the program on the parents (often in practice just mothers) who we worked with over several months to offer strategies to support their children in and out of schools. The assumptions underpinning our programs were never value free and so some of my colleagues were often critical of the focus on parents. We worked hard to make changes to our programs based on the backgrounds of parents (e.g. we ran the program in multiple languages, we engaged with Indigenous leaders and had Indigenous facilitators etc). Our work highlighted just how much cultural variation there is in parenting and family practices, but how similar parental aspirations are for their children. We tried to understand such difference and work with it (rather than judging it). One of the great side benefits of our programs (that were often run in poor communities) was that parents grew in self esteem, sought further education themselves attending Uni, TAFE etc.

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