Governments around the world are right in paying more attention to early childhood education, but they may not be starting soon enough, says Nobel laureate James Heckman.
They should do more for children aged 0 to five years old, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and not wait till they get to kindergarten or primary school.
Professor Heckman, 71, from the University of Chicago, won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2000 for his development of theory and methods for analysing selective samples.
He is a strong believer in education being a social leveller. But, he adds, it must be done right.
Right now, he thinks governments are going about it all wrong by focusing on children only after they start school. Education authorities are also emphasising the wrong things when they target boosting cognitive skills or raising academic scores.
Current programmes do not start early enough, nor do they produce the skills that matter most for personal and societal prosperity. "They ignore a powerful body of research in the economics of human development," he said in a speech to the Education Writers Conference in Chicago in April.
He holds up the Perry Preschool project, an intensive two-year voluntary programme between 1962 and 1967 for disadvantaged three- and four-year-old black children in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
The curriculum emphasised the development of self-control, perseverance and social skills, together with basic cognitive skills. It also helped the mothers to develop parenting skills and deepen their interactions with their children. The participants were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups, with the outcomes evaluated over four decades.
The study found that the programme did not produce lasting gains in the IQ of participants, but it did boost character skills that produced better education, economic and life outcomes for years to come. Another long-term early childhood study, the Carolina Abecedarian Project - better known as ABC - provided cognitive stimulation, training in self-control and social skills for children from the time they were just a few months old, as well as parental education.
The children were also provided with health check-ups and healthcare.
Four groups of children born between 1972 and 1977 were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups, and their progress was monitored at ages 12, 15, 21 and 30.
This programme was found to have lasting effects on IQ, parenting practices and child attachment, leading to higher educational attainment and more skilled employment among those in the treatment group.
More recent evidence has shown that quality early childhood programmes can also prevent chronic disease and substantially lower healthcare costs, Prof Heckman says.
Now in their 30s and early 40s, those in the ABC programme have lower blood pressure, lower abdominal obesity, less hypertension and less likelihood of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular conditions as adults.
"This evidence shows the benefits of boosts in character, self-control and cognition that percolate across all domains of life," says Prof Heckman.
He brings up a study by developmental psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley to make the point that achievement gaps for some children open up as early as the age of three.
The landmark study in the 1990s found that children whose parents were professionals were exposed to far more spoken words - more than 1,500 per hour, on average - than children from homes on welfare. Over one year, that amounted to a difference of nearly eight million words, and by age four, a total gap of 32 million words.
The evidence shows that it is much more effective to invest in high-quality early childhood programmes than to remediate later, he says.
"For early childhood programmes targeted at disadvantaged children, there is no trade-off between equity and efficiency as there is for most other social programmes. Every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood programmes for disadvantaged children produces a 7 to 10 per cent annual return on investment through increased productivity and lower social costs," he says.
In many ways, he says, his quest is not unlike that of a parent. "I address the questions they seek to answer each and every day. What are the best investments I can make in my child to ensure that he or she grows up to be a healthy, well-rounded, productive and highly valued adult?"
The answers he has found are the same as those intuitively deduced by good parents: "Invest in a strong family and home environment. Make health and nutrition a priority. Provide a constant stream of intellectual and emotional stimulation from day one. Socialise the child with other children and adults.
And foster their cognitive and character skills from infancy to young adulthood and beyond - in the home, through formal schooling, in college and on the job."
But sadly, this has been ignored by governments and societies. Why? Because providing early childhood programmes and schemes such as home visits is considered expensive and the benefits thought to be uncertain. Also, some worry that such policies are intrusive and in America at least it is "politically sensitive" to talk about the serious problems facing families.
He says policymakers must first acknowledge the power of the accident of birth. "A child does not choose the family he or she is born into," he says.
Society and governments should also recognise that good parenting is key to life success.
He says the most effective programmes supplement the parenting resources available to children and provide "scaffolding" for disadvantaged children by giving them the same sort of nurturing environments available to children in more advantaged families.
"Without doubt, the family is the greatest contributor to the success of children and to upward social and economic mobility. The way parents interact with their children, the amount of time they spend with them and the resources they have to provide intellectual and social stimulation greatly affect their children's potential for leading flourishing lives," he says.
He has harsh words for programmes which focus on boosting the cognitive skills of children.
"America has educated itself into ignorance with its single-minded focus on solely boosting cognitive skills. We see this in the endless debates over K1-12 education and the succession of initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) that place little or no value on building and measuring non-cognitive skills, social skills that are just as important and, in many cases, more important than cognition.
"It is empirically documented and now rigorously established as common sense that people need multiple skills to successfully navigate all of life's challenges. There is a strong body of research that documents how important social and emotional skills are for life success."
He says that in the past, early childhood interventions were judged by their success in boosting IQ and, on this basis, many fail.
"Yet, disadvantaged children participating in quality early childhood programmes such as Perry have had far better life outcomes on a number of measures than children who didn't," he points out.
"We have learnt that IQ isn't everything and it doesn't explain very much of the difference between those who succeed and those who do not. For many tasks in life, both in the economy and in larger society, socio-emotional skills and character skills are as important or more important for success.
"Socio-emotional skills are highly malleable, especially at a young age. Impulse control, persistence, grit, self-awareness and sociability can and should be taught at the very earliest ages - and throughout the school years. These skills drive the engagement, motivation and achievement that promote successful lives as measured by full-time employment, higher wages, healthy lifestyles, less participation in crime, and engagement in a variety of socially productive behaviours."
He sums up by stressing that quality early childhood programmes for disadvantaged children are not "bottomless wells of social spending".
"They are not government boondoggles," he says. "The investments we make today in disadvantaged young children promote social mobility, create opportunity and foster a vibrant, healthy and inclusive society and economy."
This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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