Monday, October 24, 2011

Early Childhood Intervention Matters

I was reminded the other day of a sad fact - we have been experimenting with school reforms of one type or another for many decades and, once you expand the reform to a statistically meaningful population, every single reform has failed. Other than its obsessive focus on handing taxpayer money to private testing companies and for-profit charter schools, there's nothing to distinguish the present round of reforms from past rounds. The biggest lesson appears to be that if you provide struggling children with significantly more hours in a structured learning environment, or provide quality tutoring, you can increase academic performance in the short-term, but those increases are likely to fade once that extra support is removed.

A recent column by Nicholas Kristof describes this phenomenon:
“This is where inequality starts,” said Kathleen McCartney, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as she showed me a chart demonstrating that even before kindergarten there are significant performance gaps between rich and poor students. Those gaps then widen further in school.

“Schooling after the second grade plays only a minor role in creating or reducing gaps,” [economist James] Heckman argues in an important article this year in American Educator. “It is imperative to change the way we look at education. We should invest in the foundation of school readiness from birth to age 5.”
Kristof notes that, although there's reason to doubt that there will necessarily be lasting improvement in test scores from a focus on early learning, there may be strong social and society gains:
One of the most studied initiatives in this area was the Perry Preschool program, which worked with disadvantaged black children in Michigan in the 1960s. Compared with a control group, children who went through the Perry program were 22 percent more likely to finish high school and were arrested less than half as often for felonies. They were half as likely to receive public assistance and three times as likely to own their own homes....

One of the Harvard scholars I interviewed, David Deming, compared the outcomes of children who were in Head Start with their siblings who did not participate. Professor Deming found that critics were right that the Head Start advantage in test scores faded quickly. But, in other areas, perhaps more important ones, he found that Head Start had a significant long-term impact: the former Head Start participants are significantly less likely than siblings to repeat grades, to be diagnosed with a learning disability, or to suffer the kind of poor health associated with poverty. Head Start alumni were more likely than their siblings to graduate from high school and attend college.
Our society seems inclined to approach educational issues from an "all or nothing" perspective. A few months ago I read an exchange between Bryan Caplan and "the Tiger Mom", which largely boiled down to Caplan arguing that whatever parents do a child's academic performance is likely not to be significantly affected, versus the "Tiger Mom" philosophy that with aggressive, controlling over-parenting and demand for excellence, any child can become an educational super-achiever. The truth lies somewhere in between, probably more on the Caplan side (because outside of Lake Wobegon half of the children will actually be below average).

Consider, for example, piano lessons - if you, as a parent, provide the opportunity for your child to learn how to play piano, even if they never make it to Carnegie Hall they will have learned a skill that they can continue to use for life. If you do not, odds are your child will never learn to play the piano. The skills that help people achieve in school and society are largely learned - if you provide a small child a robust set of cognitive tools, you increase the odds that the child will succeed within your society, but the longer you wait to introduce the tools to the child the less likely it is that the child will learn them, let alone master them. Delay also creates the opportunity for a child to learn the wrong lessons, to internalize rules and practices that are maladaptive.

A Caplan-style, "Don't worry, it will even out in the end" approach is not unreasonable for people who are middle class or above, and who live in strong communities, have stable jobs and incomes, and whose children are immersed in a culture that rewards educational achievement, college attendance, and ultimately "getting a good job". Children who live in violent, dangerous communities, for whom fear is a part of daily life, do not enjoy a similar luxury. If you don't attempt to influence their environment, they will never have the opportunity to reach their potential.

Our society seems fixated on the idea that education makes you smarter. That if you force reading on a child who may be too young to cognitively process the lessons, you'll end up teaching strong reading skills that will last a lifetime. That any child can be "college material", that everybody will benefit from a college education, and that everybody can perform jobs that perform a high level of cognitive function.

On the one hand, if people work hard and push themselves, they truly can accomplish a lot more than they would if they take a relaxed (or, if you will, lazy) view toward life, education and career. On the other hand, work that is cognitively easy for some people will be a constant struggle for others and, no matter how much effort the exert, beyond the reach of still others. That's true across the board - every person has subjects or activities that are beyond their skill set, and beyond what they can reasonably hope to master. Education does not make you smarter, but it can expand your horizons, allowing you to identify those areas in which you can achieve some level of mastery and to maximize your performance.

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