• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 01st May, 2007

Skills beget skills: Nobel Laureate updates view on early intervention

Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman has long advocated the view that early investment in children yields the biggest returns. But in a recent commentary on new research findings he revises what has become conventional wisdom: "I now believe that early interventions with children are not so productive if they are not followed up with ongoing investments in children during their elementary and secondary school years." (see "Beyond Pre-K: Rethinking the conventional wisdom on educational intervention," Education Week, March 19, 2007)Heckman's research with his University of Chicago collaborator Flavio Cunha examines the value of continuing support for children beyond the early years into primary and post primary education. He summarizes the message in a single line: "we need to invest in early in children and not stop."Heckman has long been a champion of early years programmes such as Perry Preschool, Abecedarian and the Chicago Child Parent Center Program. Using economic analysis alongside existing evidence from experimental trials he shows how government investment in pre-school programmes can reduce welfare dependency and crime in adulthood. At the heart of the argument are the economic costs of not intervening.He cites a striking example of where early investment makes a an enormous impact on a particular group of children – boys born to poorly educated white mothers. Heckman and Cunha found that without skill-building investments only about two in five boys in this group graduate from high school and over forty percent would be convicted of crimes. With the addition of a quality preschool program, there were notable improvements. But it was the combination of early intervention plus sustained investment into adolescence that made a dramatic and – to the researchers surprising – difference. When sustained investment through childhood is made for boys with the same risks, nine in ten graduate from high school, two in five go on to college and just one in ten get into serious trouble with the law.These are the costs of not investing early – and the potential rewards for doing so. Such strategies are relevant far beyond particular sub-groups of children; Heckman writes of a 'multiplier' effect across society and cites an estimate by Princeton economist Cecilia Rouse that the cost of high school drop-outs alone accounts for a loss in $50bn of tax income to the US government.Heckman sums up by saying "traits learned young, like perseverance and self-discipline, make it easier to acquire skills during the teenage years. Skills, that is, beget skills."Michael Little

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