The Frontal Cortex

Investing in Preschool

A new study by economists James Heckman and Dimitriy Masterov argues that investing in the education of young children (pre-K) provides the greatest return on investment. In contrast, trying to educate the brains of adolescents, the economists say, is largely a waste of resources. Here’s Joel Waldfogel:

The early investment [in education] is needed, the authors argue, to supplement the role of the family. Recent developments in neuroscience have shown that the early years are vital to cognitive development, which in turn is important to subsequent success and productivity in school, life, and work. Early-childhood nurturing has traditionally been the province of families. But families are deteriorating. Roughly one in six kids was born into poverty or single parenthood or both in 1970. In 2000, the rate was about one in four. What’s more, almost 10 percent of children were born to unmarried teenage mothers in 1999; these kids tend to receive especially low levels of emotional and intellectual support and cognitive stimulation. They arrive at kindergarten cognitively disadvantaged, and the gap widens as they get older, eventually leading to early babies, lousy jobs, and elevated crime.

Heckman and Masterov look at a number of pilot programs in early-childhood education that have targeted high-risk kids in disadvantaged families, and studied them into adulthood. These programs are like Head Start, only more intensive. For example, between 1962 and 1967, the Perry Project in Ypsilanti, Mich., provided two years of intensive preschool to a group of disadvantaged 3-year-old black children, chosen from an eligible pool by a coin flip. The program consisted of a daily session of two and a half hours and a weekly 90-minute teacher home visit. In today’s dollars, it would cost $10,000 per child per year.

Perry participants have been followed through age 40, and the program has shown substantial benefits in educational achievement and other social outcomes. Participants achieved greater literacy and higher grades, and they were more likely to graduate high school. Later in life, they were more likely to be employed–and to earn more–and less likely to be on welfare. They also committed less crime and had lower rates of teen pregnancy.

The authors estimate the rate of return for programs like the Perry Project to be a substantial 16 percent.

It’s certainly an interesting study, and I’m all in favor of more investment in the pre-K years. But I also think it’s important to note that the brain doesn’t suddenly harden after three years of age. We remain surprisingly plastic throughout life, and our frontal cortex continues to develop until after the teenage years are over. So I hope policy makers don’t conclude that K-12 education is a waste of resources; the brain of an eight grader can still change.

That said, numerous studies indicate that undue stress or the absence of supportive, nurturing parents (which is itself stressful) does have lasting effects on the child brain. (Look, for example, at the work of Harry Harlow, or John Bowlby, or Elizabeth Gould, or Cindy Hazan.) This, of course, is a much more difficult void for a pre-K school to fill. It’s one thing to teach kids how to play with blocks and count to ten; it’s something else entirely to simulate a loving family structure. But that’s what we’ll need to do if we really want to reap the benefits of our investments in pre-K education.


  1. #1 Ted
    May 25, 2007

    But I also think it’s important to note that the brain doesn’t suddenly harden after three years of age.

    It’s probably old news to you but there’s a Newsweek article this week from Wray Herbert that discusses the continuing malleability of the brain relative to personality development and learning achievement.

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