The Frontal Cortex

Investing in the Developing Brain

For the most part, basic neuroscience research has had zero influence on public policy. Knowing about the dopamine reward pathway and the substrate of addiction hasn’t changed the War on Drugs. (Although it certainly should. At the very least, we should decriminalize marijuana.) Knowing about memory reconsolidation and the inherent dishonesty of recollection hasn’t changed the way police deal with eyewitnesses or the way juries consider testimony. (Although it certainly should.) Knowing about the neural effects of credit cards hasn’t changed credit card regulations. And so on.

But there has been one major payoff from our investigations of the brain: an increasing emphasis on educating young children, before they reach kindergarten. Decades of research have demonstrated that the cortex is astonishingly plastic at a young age and that many important traits and habits seem to solidify before the age of 4. (This isn’t to discount the power of plasticity in the adult brain – it just takes a lot more work to make it happen.) When combined with the brilliant work of James Heckman, this research led policymakers to realize that investing in pre-K education had an incredibly high-rate of return. Here’s a chart, demonstrating the “rate-of-return” of various public investments:


This led, over the last decade, to an increasing emphasis at the state level on pre-K education. Since 2000, dozens of states have provided funding for free classes for 3 year olds, allowing teachers to reach the mind at its most malleable. But now, thanks to the economic mess, these same states are pulling back. The problem, of course, is that toddlers don’t vote, which means that it’s easier for lawmakers to preserve an ineffective job training program than it is to keep funding for preschool. Here’s the NY Times:

From 2002 to 2008, spending on pre-kindergarten by states nearly doubled, to $4.6 billion from $2.4 billion, enabling states to increase enrollment to 1.1 million preschoolers from about 700,000.

But given the economic decline, nine states — Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina — have already announced cuts to state-run pre-kindergarten programs, Dr. Barnett said.

And legislatures are debating cutbacks in some others, including Tennessee and Washington State, he said.

“All of this may produce dire consequences for state pre-K programs,” says the new report, the State of Preschool 2008, by the National Institute for Early Education Researchat the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. “In most states, expenditures on pre-K are entirely discretionary and therefore easier to cut than expenditures for some other program.”

Hopefully, an influx of federal dollars can prevent these budget cuts from taking place. (It’s so nice to have a president who understands the importance of early education.) When times are tough, it’s more important than ever to focus on the most cost-effective long-term investments. The Yankees don’t need a new stadium, but kids in the Bronx certainly need preschool.


  1. #1 David Brax
    April 8, 2009

    William James, who was right about nearly everything (but not about the nature of emotion, curiosly enough) wrote, with characteristic flair and panache:

    The Hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is not worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habit, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.

    While it’s true that recent neuroscientific evidence have brought these matters back to the surface, the psychological mechanisms of relevance to policy and lawmaking, have generally been known for quite some time. It’s the general unwillingness to take psychological research into account in policy making that’s the big problem, not its ignorance of neuroscience in particular. (This ignorance in turn is probably ideological: one wants to stay clear of social engineering, for some reason)

    Still, I’m sure the mere impressiveness of the neuroscientific tools (it actually looks like proper science. Like, you know, physics. By which they mean “technology”) is an excellent talking point for making the argument anew. Possibly, neuropsychology is a step into respectability for psychology in general.

  2. #2 Ginny Deerin
    April 8, 2009

    can you tell me where I can get a cleaner graphic of the chart above? Thank you.

  3. #3 David
    April 8, 2009

    Amen and Amen. I live in one of those states that are cutting back on pre-K education–and for that matter, all education–and marvel at the lack of prioritization. At times it seems that everything comes before our kids. Arts centers, basketball arenas, extensions to the convention center – name it. Both of my older children went to pre-K and I believe benefitted quite a lot. My oldest son is 8 (3rd grade) and his reading comprehension and verbal ability is at a 10th grade level. He may have started with a native ability advantage, but I have a strong feeling that his pre-K experience (which as I recall was surprisingly rigorous) helped maximize it. Good post — important topic.

  4. #4 Krista
    April 8, 2009

    Question regarding the reconsolidation of memory:

    Does the same protein synthesis occur when we dream? For instance, if we have a dream that involves a memory, does the dreaming count toward, “the more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes”?

    I find when I dream that I seem to remember details of my father’s death more clearly than when I try to consciously remember his death.

    Sorry for taking your discussion off on a tangent.

  5. #5 David Boulton
    April 8, 2009

    Excellent! Much of the ROI case referred to in this article comes from the work of James Heckman (Nobel Prize for economics 2000) and Arthur Rolnick (V.P. Fed Reserve). We conducted interviews with both of them which are freely available at:

  6. #6 LAS
    April 8, 2009

    I believe there is also research showing that the effect of preK education is relatively obsolete after mid-elementary school (e.g. children in 3rd grade with and without preK program education perform equally academically), especially for those of low SES. This is the population that is mainly targeted for these programs, anyway. So is it really worth the cost, if we do not have the resources to maintain supplementary programs for those of low SES throughout their lives in the US education system?

  7. #7 Dan
    April 8, 2009

    For more on the cost effectiveness of high-quality early childhood education, check out “The Price We Pay: Economic and Social Consequences of Inadequate Education,” edited by Clive Belfield and Henry M. Levin.

  8. #8 Martin Walker
    April 9, 2009

    Lack of accountability to good science is one of the major flaws in the current political system. As you point out, policy follows the votes. What revision to the current lumbering political machine might improve this state of affairs?

    Just as the recent sub-prime economic debacle has taught us (again) that a completely free market doesn’t always make for an effective market, a better way to have science influence policy might be to have a structure by which such accountability can be enforced.

    Science should have a real say in policy, not just a footnote.

    Martin Walker

  9. #9 Dr Nigel Leigh Oldfield
    April 9, 2009

    Where are the evidential outcomes, to discount that this is anything but hogwash, please?

    Thank you.


  10. #10 Fei Woo
    April 10, 2009

    A color version of the above chart can be found in the presentation slideshow in pdf format, “Early Childhood Update: Global Leaders for Young Children, Budapest, October 2008” <>. See slide #16, the source says: “Slide by Flavio Cunha based on Heckman and Masterov,. 2004.”

  11. #11 jb
    April 10, 2009

    As someone who chose not to work when our son was young and am happy I did so, let me give the reasons for NOT putting your kid in a pre-K program; rather staying home and raising your child yourself. I’m currently re-reading Oliver Sacks’ book “Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf” (1989)which is about children acquiring language be it spoken or signed and the consequences of that not happening before puberty or it happening only partially. This was written before Raichle at al introduced the default mode network in 2001. This DMN is the thinking mode your mind/brain will revert to when it has nothing else to do in terms of relating to the external world. Sacks stresses the fact that the full acquisition of language is necessary if one is to think properly. Although he doesn’t talk about the DMN one can infer that this wouldn’t work properly until language is fully acquired and that perhaps the DMN is necessary to fully think and speak (in sign or spoken language), sort of a rehearsal stage. Indeed the DMN research so far shows that this state of mind and brain is present in infants but doesn’t mature until 6 or 7 years of age. So there is a choice for parents…do you want someone else who is probably not as well educated, who has maybe 5 or 6 other children in their care, who is not particularly emotionally invested in your child, teaching your child in a pre-K program during this crucial time? I tried working fulltime when our son was around 2 years old and although the nursery school, or whatever they called those drop- off places for young children 25 years ago, was fine, I decided I’d rather raise him myself. Fortunately our finanacial situation permitted this; I realize that that may not be the case for young parents these days. It also helps to have an extended family to help with this though I did not.

  12. #12 Steve
    April 15, 2009

    I would just like to add that parallel to the benefits of early childhood education for all is the benefits of early childhood diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the brain, including learning disabilities and other conditions such as autism. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2007 that every child under the age of 2 be tested twice for autism. There are very good reasons for this recommendation.

    The remarkable plasticity of the brain in children under 9 can facilitate treatment and profound improvement of many conditions. Sadly, after age 9 that capacity significantly diminishes.

    As with general education and development of the young brain, early identification and treatment of brain dysfunction can have a huge ROI for society and well as the obvious benefits it provides for individual children and their families.

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    April 21, 2009

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