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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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In the Boston Review: Debates on How Early Learning Leads to Social Mobility

Published:  November 1, 2012

“While we [Americans] celebrate equality of opportunity, we live in a society in which birth is becoming fate,” writes Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman as part of a stimulating debate in this month’s Boston Review forum, “Promoting Social Mobility” a discussion about using early intervention to reduce inequality.

In his lead essay, Heckman explains that gaps in cognitive and social-emotional abilities begin in the early years of a child’s life. To some extent genes are responsible for the gap, but Heckman argues that the gap is more based on the child’s social environment. “While more educated women are working more,” he writes, “their families are more stable and the mothers in these families are devoting more time to child development activities than are less educated women.”

Early interventions that enrich children’s early environments can improve children’s outcomes, Heckman argues, stressing that they should focus on building social-emotional skills as well as cognitive abilities: “Skills beget skills and capabilities foster future capabilities. Early mastery of a range of cognitive, social, and emotional competencies makes learning at later ages more efficient and therefore easier and more likely to continue.”

Readers of Early Ed Watch will be familiar with the studies that Heckman cites, such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project, interventions that had a significant impact on children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills (perseverance, attentiveness, motivation, self-confidence, etc), which are key to their success as adults. (Listen to an Early Ed Watch Podcast on the Abecedarian Project.) To promote social mobility across generations, Heckman pushes for social policies that improve the quality of parenting and early life environments, with later interventions that reinforce early efforts rather than on simply giving money to poor families

It’s encouraging to see Heckman’s ideas gaining greater audiences, but as the Early Education Initiative has stressed, there is yet more to do. Increasing all children’s access to high-quality early education programs, but especially children from families in poverty, is an important step on the path to reading by the end of third grade, graduating from high school, going on to college or other career-training and obtaining a good paying job that supports them and their future families. Policymakers should make investments in high-quality early education programs – as well as home visiting programs, prenatal care and parenting programs – to help children get the right start. But these investments aren’t enough on their own. Children also need effective teachers and schools throughout their schooling, programs to keep their families stable, after school and summer programs to enrich their learning, healthcare to ensure they can focus on learning when they are in school and assistance to help them and their families navigate and pay for higher education.

Below are selected points made by some of the responders:

  • Mike Rose, professor of social research methodology in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, points out that the best way to develop non-cognitive skills or “soft skills” is “through meaningful activity that has a cognitive dimension to it.” (In other words, instead of attempting to teach children the skill of trying something again and again until they are successful, teachers should connect the skill to examples, perhaps engaging them in stories of individuals who persevere.)
  • Robin West, Frederick J. Haas professor of law and philosophy and associate dean at the Georgetown University Law Center, says that pre-K programs also benefit mothers living in poverty, allowing them to return to school if necessary or work. West says, “With greater income and a sense of accomplishment in the workaday world, her mothering would likely improve along with her self-esteem and overall well-being.”
  • David Deming, assistant professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shares his concern that researchers and policymakers are too focused on improving the quality of early learning programs. He says, “The best available evidence suggests that access to any center-based program of reasonable quality is far more important than difference in quality across programs.” Deming believes limited public resources should first be spent on achieving 100 percent access for children from families living in poverty. He suggests expanding Head Start as one possible approach to meeting this goal.
  • Annette Lareau, Stanley I. Sheerr Term professor in the social sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, cautions policymakers not to “ignore failing social institutions that compound poor children’s disadvantage.” She says the quality of the services that institutions such as public schools, social services providers, health clinics and the court system provide vary depending on the social class of the clients being served. Interacting with these institutions can often be a negative experience for poor families. Because of this, working class families are frequently less trusting of public institutions than are middle-class families.
  • Lelac Almagor, a teacher at KIPP DC: AIM Academy in Washington, D.C, says, “Even when we have identified the very best programs, funded them and set them in motion, we can’t set our hearts on the hope that they’ll ‘predistribute’ opportunity equally.” (Heckman introduces the idea of predistribution over redistribution. He says many believe that redistributing income is an effective way to address poverty and promote social mobility. But recent work has shown that while redistribution helps at a point in time, it does not have lasting effects on its own. Predistribution – improving the quality of parenting and early environments of poor children – is more likely to promote long-term social mobility.) Almagor argues that we will still need to develop effective programs for not just preschoolers, but also for school-aged children as well as parents.
  • Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, says, “Without bolstering early-education for children, our public schools will be handicapped in fulfilling their mandate for a large portion of their students – particularly those of poor parents.” Although he also emphasizes the need to improve efforts to support children throughout their lives, not just in the early years.

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