What We’re Listening To: Does Early Education Come Too Late?

In the latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, hear the story of three economists, Steve Levitt, Roland Fryer, and John List, who start an experimental preschool in Chicago that has a Parent Academy to go along with it to help parents learn how to best support their kids’ learning.

As explained by Steve Levitt

The idea there was to look at state-of-the-art techniques for teaching kids reading, writing, and arithmetic — cognitive skills — and compare the outcomes of kids with another curriculum that emphasized non-cognitive skills like sitting still and expanding working memory and executive function and things like that.

A new working paper includes some results. They find that some kids make huge gains in the program and some kids make no gains and the economists go on to try to figure out why.

Steve Levitt says that there were big findings about the role of non-cognitive skills:

Upon entry into the program, we tested kids to see where they stood in terms of their cognitive skills — how well they could, you know, do the alphabet and math and whatnot — and also their non-cognitive skills, about how well they could sit still and keep things in memory. And what was incredibly interesting to me in our findings is that for the kids who were below average on these non-cognitive skills — the ability to concentrate, to remember things, to kind of think their way through problems — the below-average kids made no progress in our program. So if you started behind, in terms of how ready you were to learn in some sense, then you got nothing out of our program. And that was true whether you scored high on the cognitive scores or not. So, kids could be really high achievers in terms of math and reading but gain nothing from our program if they didn’t have these sort of sit-still skills. But on the other hand if you were above average on these non-cognitive skills, you got huge benefits from our program. So what does this mean? Well, for one thing, I think it intuitively makes sense — that there’s a threshold for being able to learn. If the kids can’t concentrate, it’s hard for them to learn and no matter how hard the parents try it’s going to be hard to make gains. On the other hand, what it’s really valuable for from the perspective of public policy is that it really tells you where to target your resources.

Stephen Dubner, the host of the podcast notes

If a child’s ability to learn is so heavily influenced by what happens at home — and if the kids who came in with low non-cognitive scores at age three or four didn’t make cognitive gains — well, maybe the key here isn’t just what happens at home for a kid, but what happens at home well before a kid is even old enough to go to pre-school.

The podcast also looks at the Thirty Million Words initiative, aimed at boosting the number of words disadvantaged kids hear in their earliest years, and at the impact of Sesame Street.

You can read the transcript of the podcast here.

– Education Next

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