Public Policy Forum Blog

The myth of the first three years?

A 2002 Frontline program recently brought to my attention that investigates the brain development of teenagers confronts an issue that's been raised frequently lately regarding early childhood development: Are the first three years of life all or nothing for cognitive development?

Because of the growing awareness of the importance of early childhood development and the resulting new policies directing more public investment into early childhood education, a tension among children's advocates and educators has surfaced. If public funds for education are limited, where should the dollars go? Not enough of today's teenagers are graduating, while too many toddlers lanquish in sub-quality child care. Which is the priority?

The Frontline reporters interviewed John Bruer, President of the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis and the author of The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning. Bruer's argument is that the science of early brain development does not support the need for public investment in early childhood education at the expense of other, post-K educational investments. He further criticizes early childhood advocates of misusing brain science to lobby for child care policy. He tells Frontline:

"The early campaigns really selectively chose very dated pieces of neuroscience and knit them together in a compelling way to sell a story. And the way that those campaigns were put together was pretty much in the same way we would put together an ad campaign or a publicity campaign for any other cause. There's a place for that. However, when people claim to be telling us their policy recommendations are based on science, we should be sure that they are."

Bruer's book has received considerable media attention and other researchers are making similar arguments. For instance, Dr. James Heckman, a 2000 Nobel laureate in economics and strong proponent of public investment in early childhood programs, recently wrote in Education Week (March 21) that his latest work has forced him to "rethink the conventional wisdom" that investments in early childhood interventions bring the best returns for disadvantaged and at-risk children. He now believes that "interventions with children are not so productive if they are not followed up with ongoing investments in children during their elementary and secondary school years. Instead, we need to invest early in children—and not stop."

Bruer's conclusions, although not often portrayed this way, are actually similar to Heckman's. Bruer contends that brain research shows that even though a brain may physically be developing at the fastest rate in early childhood, the learning curve during that time is no different than at any other time in a child's life. He states that the most compelling research shows that learning depends on prior knowledge: "Your prior knowledge is the best predictor of how quickly and well you will learn. You can look at word learning, for example. The more words people know, the more quickly they'll learn new ones. So this notion that rate of learning is so closely linked to the biological maturation of the brain isn't a very useful one." Indeed, "it's not a biological brain maturation issue. It's cultural experience in your environment. And we have to be very careful not to confuse the culture with the biology." Thus, while he agrees that early childhood education is important in providing the knowledge base necessary for later learning, he cautions that this is not solely because of the many new brain synapses created in the first three years.

Heckman's Ed Week essay translates this notion into policy:

"Too often, government officials design programs for children as if they lived their lives in silos, as if each stage of a child’s life were independent of the other, unconnected to what came before or what lies ahead. It’s time for policymakers now to look beyond the silos, to begin recognizing that consistent, cost-effective investment in children and youths can pay for itself. Providing young people with the resources they need to compete in today’s global economy is not just a moral imperative. It is an economic necessity, too

The take-home lesson for policymakers threefold. 1)Be aware of the limitations of the science: high quality early childhood education is not going to be a magic bullet for producing "smart kids." The positive benefits of high quality child care are not automatic because it is not a simple biological process. 2) In addition, investments in early interventions cannot supplant investments in a child's later years if you expect the best return on your investment. 3) And, as with any other education reform, accountability is key because the devil is in the details. Jack Shonkoff, author of From Neurons to Neighborhoods, cautions Frontline regarding this last point:

"The problem is sometimes we take a good model that's been shown to work, and then we try to bring it to scale and do it to serve more children for less money, with less well training of the staff; and we get more confusing and equivocal findings. So that's the problem. The problem is not whether early intervention is a good public investment. The problem is whether we invest in high-quality services that are shown to make a difference. And as we found in our report, although the science tells us interventions can be effective when they're administered early, effective interventions are not simple. They're rarely inexpensive, and they're not always easy to implement...

Thus, policymakers must take care to ensure their investments in early childhood programs are monitored for effectiveness and that wide-scale implementation is done carefully. Accountability is the key to good policy as much in early childhood education as in primary or secondary education.

Anneliese Dickman