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Nobel Laureate Prof James J. Heckman on ‘The Value of Investing in Early Childhood Development’


CCS hosted Nobel Laureate Professor James J Heckman on 28 March 2014. Speaking to an audience of leaders in education policy and practice, Prof. Heckman talked about his research in human development and life-cycle formation, emphasising the importance and economic value of early childhood development.

Prof. Heckman’s research demonstrates that the accident of birth is the principal source of inequality in America and there is a need to invest in kids from disadvantaged backgrounds – with an emphasis on early intervention. His work also explores challenges between cognitive and non-cognitive skills and studies achievement tests,  and shows that success in life depends on more than just test scores – bringing out the role of character. These points, though they may seem obvious, are not part of public policy debate today.

Value of investing in Early Childhood Development

Heckman studied remediation programs and found that they were not having that much success. Job training programs, at least in their current form, were found to have very modest effects and return on job training investment was negative. Once children were out of these programs, the training was seen to have no lasting effects.

Considering what to do about this led Heckman to look at other kinds of initiatives – with focus on programs that were intervening in remediation or training much earlier in life. The Perry Preschool Program and the Abecedarian Program, were two such programs that he references, which were initially launched to combat mental retardation.

The results of these programs were promising. The treatment group children, who were receiving early intervention did much better in terms of employment, reduced involvement in criminal activity, participation in education and other dimensions of social participation. Thinking like an economist, Heckman not only studied this gap between treatment and non-treatment groups but also computed the benefits and rate of return on early intervention till these children reached age 40. He found that the rate of return was at least 7-10% higher with the treatment groups – and this rate of return included only some of the benefits of the program!

Following the fruits of the Abecedarian program, which intervened with children at the age of 8 weeks till they were 8 years old, Heckman found that starting at 8 weeks not only boosted the IQ of the treatment groups when measured at age 21, there were also found to be strong effects on their health, when measured at age 25 through indicators such as number of physician visits, blood pressure, etc.

Yet, it was found that IQ was not demonstrating the effects of these programs. Heckman and his team decided to look at other measures – including non-cognitive traits. These traits, which he described as a ‘broad and crude’ category are still seen as strong predictors of success and failure in adult life. Since the early 1970s, everything was about cognition. Now the realization has come about that there are a whole host of other outcomes of intelligence and that non-cognitive traits matter a great deal. These early intervention programs, almost by accident, are actually targeting these traits.

These non-cognitive traits do have a heritability component, however, as Heckman stressed, environments matter a lot, especially early environments. Thinking of interventions at various stages of the life cycle, we must question when they are most effective. Malleability is greatest at an early age and once a child reaches the age of ten, they are what he called ‘IQ rank stable’, which means that while test scores on IQ tests may vary, relative ranking on fluid intelligence and ability to solve abstract problems is set.

Heckman ended by suggesting that there is an economic value in computing intervention during early years of childhood development and that starvation of stimulation at early years has serious consequences. At a time when we are exploring innovations in education and working to change our education system so that the focus puts the student at the centre of the system, his insights into childhood development and the best stage for intervention are extremely significant and can feed into our education policy so that we may create the best system for our future generations.

You can hear his talk here.

This article was originally posted on Spontaneous Order.

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