Thursday, April 24, 2014
Back in the fall when the prospect of new federal funds for pre-k education was heating up, there was a significant amount of discussion regarding the academic effects of pre-k education. I offered some analysis of a report that synthesized the research and focused on the long-term effects of pre-k education. The report acknowledged that, while pre-k education shows a positive academic effect as measured by standardized tests in the early school years, those positive effects fade over time, potentially to a point of non-existence. More important, the report found, were the long term effects on graduation rates and the like. Those opposed to spending more on pre-k focus on the former and ignore the latter.
A new article in the National Journal offers further explanation of what the research means and why it reveals this disparate result (loss of academic achievement effect, but retention of other effects). The Journal, speaking of University of Chicago economist James Heckman, explained:
Once Heckman started looking into early childhood interventions, he realized that assessments needed to include noncognitive outcomes—the ability to self-motivate, exhibit self-control, and work toward long-term goals. Those social and emotional skills could influence whether a child later got involved in crime, stayed in high school, or was responsible for a teen pregnancy.
This insight—that teaching children how to learn can be just as important as the content of what they learn—has been one of two key developments in the area of early interventions. The other is a recognition that children are only part of the equation. As a National Academy of Sciences committee recounted in its report, "From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development," "the field of early childhood intervention evolved from its original focus on children to a growing appreciation of the extent to which family, community, and broader societal factors affect child health and development." The more recent interest in home visit programs that can improve parenting skills and potentially alter home environments reflects this more holistic approach to improving children's opportunities.
Over the past two decades, Heckman has developed a case for investing in early interventions focused on low-income children and their families—and he has called for "a major refocus of policy … to capitalize on knowledge about the importance of the early years in creating inequality and in producing skills for the workforce." His research has been hailed, particularly by Democratic policymakers, in large part because Heckman makes the argument that money spent on early childhood intervention produces much higher economic returns than any later efforts in secondary education, job training, and certainly convict rehabilitation.