Dec. 7, 2006
Vol. 26 No. 6

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    Childhood-learning research results suggest invest early, intervene throughout kids’ adolescent years

    By William Harms
    News Office

    While studies have shown that disadvantaged children benefit from high-quality preschool programs, new research shows children would benefit even more from additional tutoring and mentoring during their elementary and high school years.

    Researchers have previously noted that many of the advantages children receive from preschool experiences begin to wane as they continue through school. A study by Nobel laureate James Heckman, an expert on early childhood education, now shows for the first time that systematic interventions throughout childhood and adolescence could sustain early gains and build on them.

    “Childhood is a multistage process where early investments feed into later investments. Skill begets skill; learning begets learning,” wrote Heckman in the paper, “Investing in our Young People.” Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, co-wrote the paper with Flavio Cunha, a Chicago graduate student in Economics. The study was released last month as part of a larger report by America’s Promise Alliance titled Every Child, Every Promise: Turning Failure into Action.

    The scholars studied data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth to estimate a model that would describe how different inputs contribute to the accumulation of abilities. They used the model to predict the outcomes of children born to disadvantaged mothers when the children received a variety of extra-learning assistance. In particular, they simulated the potential outcome of continued high-quality interventions beyond preschool.

    Because programs for young people now focus on one period in a child’s life, such as preschool or high school, little research has been done that studies a group of students receiving continued interventions systematically.

    Heckman and Cunha’s computer simulation showed that the sustained investments in disadvantaged children would have dramatic results. The attention would improve the children’s school performance as well as their social skills. The children who perform better in school would likely complete more education and not become involved in crime or dependent upon welfare. The study also showed:

    • With early childhood intervention, high school graduation rates would increase to 65 percent and college enrollment to 12 percent. Participation in crime would decrease.

    • With skill-building investments in high school, graduation rates would be 65 percent, while convictions and probation for crime would fall dramatically.

    • Combining early childhood intervention with high school intervention would increase high-school graduation rates to 84 percent and college participation rates to 27 percent.

    • Disadvantaged children who received balanced additional attention throughout childhood would fare even better. More than 90 percent of those students would graduate from high school and 37 percent would attend college, while conviction and probation rates would fall to 2.6 percent. The additional investments throughout childhood could include extra enrichment and tutoring in school as well as opportunities provided by parents and institutions other than schools.

    Other research has shown dramatic economic advantages for society when more students complete high school and attend college. The costs to society decrease because fewer people would be involved in crime.

    Heckman and Cunha’s model also showed that without early childhood investments, only 41 percent of students would finish high school, and more than 22 percent would be convicted of crime or be put on probation. Just 4.5 percent would enroll in college.

    Among African Americans, studies have shown that 30 percent of men who did not graduate from high school are in prison. Crime costs Americans more than $600 billion per year.

    The research shows that the benefits of increased investments in young people come from improving both cognitive and noncognitive skills. Although preschool can improve cognitive skills, interventions beyond preschool can improve noncognitive skills such as perseverance and self-control, the study authors wrote.

    Heckman said focusing attention on the skills gap is vital to the country’s future economic success. College attendance rates have stalled, and the percentage of students completing a conventional four-year high school program is decreasing. “Currently 17 percent of all new high school credentials or GEDs are issued to people who earn about as much as high school dropouts.

    “The growth in the quality of the workforce, which was a mainstay of economic growth until recently, has diminished,” Heckman said. “This trend must change or America’s economy will be undermined.”