The Genius of Early Intervention

James Heckman is the pre-eminent scholar on the economics of early education. Heckman, who won the Nobel Prize in 2000, has focused on how early--childhood interventions affect society at large and the life skills and development of young children. The Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, he has devised ways to measure the economic benefit of preschool, focusing in particular on two programs that have served disadvantaged children: the Perry Preschool, which began in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the 1960s and the Abecedarian, or ABC, Project in North Carolina.


Sharon Lerner: How early in a child’s life is too early to intervene? Have you looked at that in home-visiting programs or other programs that are done in infancy? 

James Heckman: We have a project that shows the long-term effects of interventions starting as early as two months in the life of the child on adult health and other outcomes. We followed them for 35 years, and now we’re seeing much lower, for example, blood-pressure rates. 


Table of Contents

Introduction: A Second Chance for the Youngest Americans

The Abbot District's Fortunate Few

Sidebar: China Goes Big

Sidebar: The Robin Hood Plan

Sidebar: The Fade-Out Debate

Sidebar: High Enrollment, Low Standards

Q&A: The Genius of Early Intervention

What are the health benefits of early--childhood education? And what is the mechanism by which early education might affect health?

We followed kids who got interventions, including doctor’s visits, starting at two months old for 35 years and found that metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes, is substantially lowered. Among the treatment group, there’s none of the syndrome. In the control group, 25 percent of this population has this precursor condition for diabetes, if they don’t have diabetes already. So you see tremendous improvement. 

ABC does provide pediatric visits, so they are getting checkups that disadvantaged children wouldn’t ordinarily have. But the intervention is also operating through other channels. By giving these kids both the cognitive and noncognitive skills, self-control, social and emotional skills, as well as screening for early health problems, you’re providing a powerful base for adult health. There’s a lot of evidence that these noncognitive traits are predictive of a whole range of behaviors. It’s far more important to be conscientious than to be smart if you want a long life. These persistence traits are very, very predictive, and they can be shaped.


I know people talk about the early years as the ideal time to intervene, but as kids get older, when does the return on investment begin to diminish? 

Don’t forget there’s a dynamic synergism that’s going on here. You build the skill base, then later investments become even more productive. That’s one of the reasons the rate of return is so high for early investments. It has a direct effect on producing a set of skills that are immediately useful and that are also useful in producing future sets of skills. That’s why I’m hesitant to think that it’s like diminishing returns on a static technology or something. Success breeds success, and if you get more highly able children who are given the opportunity and enthusiasm for learning, you’re going to get enormously high rates of return.

It does get increasingly harder to remediate the older the person is. If he or she doesn’t have the skill base, then the later investments do start falling off. For example, if you look at the rate of return on public job-training programs for 17- and 18-year-old disadvantaged kids with very low ability, they’re negative. Job Corps basically has a zero rate of return.

With Perry Preschool, we’re getting annual rates of return around 6 percent to 10  percent per year. If you think about putting money in a bank, it would double in a period of about seven or eight years. You’re going to get the force of compound interest, but it’s an investment in a person rather than in a bank. 


I’ve heard you refer to this 6 percent to 10 percent yield before. Is that rate of return averaged over a lifetime? If so, aren’t the biggest savings at the end of the line?

You’re certainly right—it’s an average. I’ve forgotten which office of government says the effective horizon over which any investment program should be evaluated is ten years. That’s just myopic. It’s certainly not consistent with what we did with the interstate highway system, building dams, the Tennessee Valley Authority. But put that to the side—there really are substantial, short-term impacts. 

There is a lot of exciting work looking at the payback in the reduction of things like special education. Robert Dugger [co-founder of ReadyNation, a business group that supports early education] is heading a group that’s looking into social-impact bonds for early-education programs. He’s trying to bring in the private sector to finance the returns on these investments. So on a strict cash basis, local governments should be able to float bonds based on what their long-term savings and short-term costs would be. 


You’ve consulted with the Obama administration on this issue. How have you advised it?

When Barack Obama ran for office in 2008, I gave him and his group some advice about what an effective strategy might be. I think the administration—at least the part of the administration I’ve dealt with, Secretary Arne Duncan, the people in Health and Human Services—have been very, very open. They’ve asked me if they’re somehow misusing or misstating the evidence. They seem to be serious about making sure the case they’re putting forth is evidence-based. 

What, if anything, might you do to improve upon Obama’s plan?

The administration seems fixed on this one year: age four. But the gap in test scores that’s there at high-school graduation between the children of affluent mothers and the children of poor mothers is more or less there at age three. So we really should ask what’s going on from zero to three. I think the evidence is going to slowly push the administration this way. Obama’s proposal is a toe in the water, and it’s probably a good start. The only danger would be spreading it too thin. I’m strongly opposed to this idea of making [preschool] universal, because quality is more important.


Do you have models from around the country that exemplify the kind of early education you think we ought to offer as a nation? 

The Chicago Child-Parent Program was implemented in a very poor neighborhood, and it suggests the feasibility of a large-scale program. It’s a model that is really seeming to have some long-term effects on the children in the program. In Chicago, we’ve had private philanthropists like Irving Harris and J.B. Pritzker and others, and that creates a community where you’re getting this interesting mix between public and private intervention.


You refer often to Perry and ABC in your work. These were pilot programs. Can you say why you think it makes sense to build national policy on these small examples?

There are papers saying these results don’t extrapolate to other nonpoor populations, and I completely agree with that. Those programs are effective for severely disadvantaged kids, the ones who are in the worst conditions, at least as measured by home environments when they’re young. That’s where the evidence stops. I think the universal advocates are taking it too far.

Many people say that a sample with a million observations is better than one with a thousand and, for precision, there’s no question. But you get these rare samples that come along that provide you with an insight that these programs can make big changes. If it’s really a small sample, then all the cards should be stacked against finding any effects. In spite of the fact that the samples are so small, we still found strong evidence, and not because we picked a few statistically significant results. We corrected for that, and these results still hold. I agree it would be nice to have bigger studies, but, in the case of Perry, we have 50 years of data. We’re now about to launch in the field a 50-year follow-up on health and these long-term measures.


Is there another country you might point to that offers convincing evidence of the economic benefits of early-childhood education?

The countries that probably everybody’s looking to and trying to understand are the Nordic countries, including Finland, that seem to offer a rich support for early child care and strong support for what would be something like early child-care systems and for encouraging teachers in both preschool and in schools of high quality. That seems to be a prototype, but it’s understudied. 


What do you make of the Head Start evaluation that came out in March? 

I’ve looked at this study pretty closely. What you have is a problem that people who are in the so-called control group for Head Start are sometimes in an even better program than Head Start. So you’ve got a flaw called “substitution bias.” [Some of the children who wound up in the control group were enrolled in] a comparable program somewhere else, so the study is comparing not just apples with apples but actually the same apple and finding no effect whatsoever. In fact, both treatment and control groups may be experiencing a strong effect.

In principle, it’s possible to correct this bias. The administration, the Institute of Education Sciences, and a group in the Department of Education are sitting on data that would allow analysts to essentially look at what the effects are of children in the control group participating in high-quality alternative programs. But they’re not releasing the data. It’s just bureaucracy at its worst. Right now, it’s not possible for anybody to accurately analyze the Head Start studies. 


I know you’ve done some consulting in China recently. What might we learn from that country?

The vice premier of China just announced that they’re launching a program I’ve been working on with the China Development Research Foundation that will give nutrition and cognitive and noncognitive supplements to somewhere between 15 million and 30 million left-behind children in rural China. These are children whose parents have migrated to the East, but who are still out in the West, in typically rural areas, and are being raised by their grandparents. It’s a bad situation in terms of their early-childhood environment and nutrition, too. We’re talking very low levels of iron. This is a much lower baseline than in the U.S. We’re talking about child poverty that’s extreme, deprivation that’s real, something we don’t find in many parts of the United States. 


Is there something we can do for adolescents who don’t get the help? Is there any particularly successful form of remediation?

Successful interventions for adolescents primarily target these noncognitive skills. They’re teaching kids to show up on time, providing guidance. It’s really a form of attachment—but for adolescents. Some mentoring programs have been evaluated, and we have seen long-term benefits. The rates of return are not as high as they are in the early-childhood programs. But I think it’s a mistake to think we can’t do anything at later ages. 

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