Pethokoukis, Economics, U.S. Economy

A universal pre-K program to boost character as well as cognition?

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Here is the summary of “Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions That Improve Character and Cognition” by James Heckman and Tim Kautz:

 Character skills predict later-life outcomes with the same, or greater, strength as measures of cognition. … There is substantial evidence that high-quality early childhood programs have lasting and bene ficial eff ects on character skills. The evidence on interventions in elementary schools shows lasting ben efits of interventions that primarily operate through boosting character skills. There are few long-term evaluations of adolescent interventions.

The available evidence suggests a much greater benefit  from programs that target character skills compared to the benefit s of programs that mainly target cognition and academic learning. Workplace-based programs that teach character skills appear to be the most effective remediation interventions for adolescents. They motivate acquisition of work-relevant skills and provide discipline and guidance for disadvantaged youth that is often missing in their homes or high schools. Successful interventions at any age emulate the mentoring and attachment that successful families give their children.

The available evidence suggests that the most successful remediation programs are not as e ffective as the most successful early childhood programs. Building an early base of skills that promote later-life learning and engagement in school and society is a better strategy. Prevention is more effective than remediation.

But why this is an argument for a universal program, I am not sure. Russ Whitehurst of Brookings on pre-K and other childhood intervention programs: “The largest impacts have always been associated with children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. This argues for targeted, intensive programs, not universal ones.”

Unless of course, you have great cynicism about the decency of the American people — that they would reject a program, proven effective, that would helps kids who aren’t their own kids. Indeed, this philosophy is at the heart of the progressive resistance to means testing welfare programs. But if that were true, what about the broad support for the Earned Income Tax Credit? As William Voegeli writes in Never Enough:

In reality, the EITC enjoys bipartisan support in Congress and is politically unassailable. “If means testing makes Social Security as unpopular at the EITC,” writes Mickey Kaus. “Democrats have nothing to fear.”

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

3 thoughts on “A universal pre-K program to boost character as well as cognition?

  1. “But why this is an argument for a universal program, I am not sure.” – JP

    Maybe, just maybe the massive political constituency building exercise, with other people’s money, known as early childhood intervention needs continued and the rent seekers thereof, satisfied. How so?

    Early childhood academic intervention, from the Westinghouse study in the late 1960’s to two massive HHS studies, the last in 2010, show no lasting effects of early childhood academic intervention.

    But not to be dissuaded, and with the focus on intention and not result, the programs have gone on unhindered for four decades and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent with zero to minimal results. However, those involved in early childhood academic intervention make for nice political constituents and have, over time, become rent seekers extraordinaire.

    Why not hedge the political constituency building exercise with other people’s money and associated rent seeking by claiming other interventions indeed work? Yes a nice hedge.

    One might even rename it “intervention change” so that it becomes an argument that morphs per situation.

  2. Inclusion is an argument for universal preschool, as is socialization. The blogger has noted several times that inequality eases in cities where classes commingle. While there is some advantage to 4YOs of different backgrounds socializing without much baggage, a bigger benefit is aspirational (upscale) parents riding herd on preschool administrators and teachers, something Headstart badly needs (along with certified teachers.)

  3. My sense is there is a group of people who want funds for early education…and other groups for defense…and other groups for the poor etc…studies and scare-mongering for the tax dollar…

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