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Early-Childhood Education Helps Kids’ Minds—and Their Health

The results of a 40-year-long study are just becoming clear now—and the findings are surprising the researchers.

Longfellow Elementary, Oak Park, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013   Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Not long ago, I interviewed James Heckman and his co-authors, John Eric Humphries and Tim Kautz, about their book The Myth of the Achievement Test. There’s a lot to the book—the origins of the GED, the rise of the standardized test—but as the title suggests, it revolves around the concept that education should focus on more than just cognition. Heckman thinks we’ve essentially reached peak testing in the wake of No Child Left Behind, and that what has to follow should be more holistic—and it should start earlier.

One of the pillars of Heckman’s work is the Abecedarian Project, which randomly assigned a small number of young, low-income North Carolinian to an intensive early-childhood education program. The program began about 40 years ago and ran for a few years, and the students were traced for about three decades. But sociologists and economists remain deeply interested in it, and its results are starting to increasingly drive public policy through the research of scholars like Heckman, who’s back with some interesting findings from Abecedarian.

Not only did the early-childhood-education program improve the kids’ later educational outcomes, there appear to have been benefits to their health as well:

Frances Campbell, a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who started work on the project in the 1970s, said of the health improvements, “I would not say to you that we were expecting to see much of a difference at all.”

But that is precisely what researchers found. Men in the treatment group, now mostly in their mid-30s, were less likely to develop hypertension than those in the control group. They also had significantly higher levels of so-called good cholesterol, and none had developed metabolic syndrome, the medical term for a group of risk factors that together substantially raise the chances for heart disease, diabetes and stroke. In contrast, a quarter of the men in the control group had the syndrome.

It’s reminiscent of the work on food stamps and long-term health from Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach at Northwestern. And it was effective specifically in the very earliest years:

We found no evidence of any treatment effect on adult health from the second-stage randomization. The treatment effects are much smaller in magnitude than those estimated for the first-stage treatment and fail to achieve statistical significance at conventional levels…. References (16–18) show that for most outcomes the early educational intervention had much stronger effects than the school-age treatment. Additionally, previous work has also shown no health effects from a school-age (as compared with a preschool) educational intervention.

It’s not the only news coming out of the early-childhood-education front—Motoko Rich has a good piece on efforts in Providence, Rhode Island to implement the concept of U. of C. prof Dana Suskind’s Thirty Million Words initiative using public policy. They share the idea that babies and very young kids, while not blank slates, have much of their futures yet to be written—but more than we sometimes assume is written in those first few years. And it’s exactly that period before universal schooling begins—something that’s still something like a blank slate, on the policy level, in America.

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