The results from Head Start were more mixed. By the early 1980s, studies started showing that the short-term IQ gains from Head Start education could fade away by the time a child reached third or fourth grade. However, there were benefits to Head Start participation that didn't show up on achievement tests — and those appeared promising. Head Start students ended up being held back less often when they moved onto elementary and middle school, and they had fewer referrals for special education.
The Importance of Social and Emotional Skills
Then, in 1994, the publication of The Bell Curve threw a grenade into debates over early childhood interventions. The book, written by psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray, argued that ability and intellect are genetically determined. Suddenly the old nature-versus-nurture debate, which had been mostly dormant for several decades, roared back — and it attracted the research interest of University of Chicago economist James Heckman, who was just a few years away from winning the Nobel Prize for his work on econometrics.
Once Heckman started looking into early childhood interventions, he realized that assessments needed to include noncognitive outcomes — the ability to self-motivate, exhibit self-control, and work toward long-term goals. Those social and emotional skills could influence whether a child later got involved in crime, stayed in high school, or was responsible for a teen pregnancy.
This insight — that teaching children how to learn can be just as important as the content of what they learn — has been one of two key developments in the area of early interventions. The other is a recognition that children are only part of the equation. As a National Academy of Sciences committee recounted in its report, "From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development," "the field of early childhood intervention evolved from its original focus on children to a growing appreciation of the extent to which family, community, and broader societal factors affect child health and development." The more recent interest in home visit programs that can improve parenting skills and potentially alter home environments reflects this more holistic approach to improving children's opportunities.
New Investments in Early Interventions
Over the past two decades, Heckman has developed a case for investing in early interventions focused on low-income children and their families — and he has called for "a major refocus of policy "¦ to capitalize on knowledge about the importance of the early years in creating inequality and in producing skills for the workforce." His research has been hailed, particularly by Democratic policymakers, in large part because Heckman makes the argument that money spent on early childhood intervention produces much higher economic returns than any later efforts in secondary education, job training, and certainly convict rehabilitation.