What Lessons Does the Heckman Equation Hold for Your Early Childhood Program?

April 27, 2016Megan Malisani

Recent debate surrounding the Heckman Equation reveals insights into how Early Childhood Development (ECD) programs can help children develop invaluable skills needed for happy, productive adulthood.  So what are these skills and what can ECD programs do to help children build them?

The Heckman Equation is a mathematical model which suggests the highest returns to investment in education exist during the earliest years of a child’s life.  Three U.S. preschool programs for disadvantaged children are frequently cited by Dr. James Heckman and others in support of early education programs: The Perry Preschool Project, The Carolina Abecedarian Project and The Chicago Child Parent Center.  Studies of each program followed participating children into adulthood and found that enrollment was associated with better long-term education and social outcomes. Participants displayed higher rates of high school graduation and college enrollment as well as lower rates of incarceration and welfare dependence.

Recently though, elements of the Heckman Equation and its predictions have been challenged.

Dr. Grover Whitehurst has questioned the validity of the Heckman Equation by citing conflicting evidence. One study followed Head Start participants through third grade and found that the program did not produce lasting impacts on cognitive development and produced only slightly positive, mixed results on socioemotional development.  An analysis of 4th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores found only small gains for children participating in Georgia and Oklahoma’s universal preschool programs.  

Whitehurst also contends that evidence in support of the Heckman curve is weak, citing flaws in the design and execution of supporting studies. Researchers often randomly assign participants to one of two groups: the treatment group, which participates in an intervention, and the control group, which does not.  Randomly assigning participants increases the likelihood that the groups are comparable and enables researchers to draw conclusions about the intervention’s impacts.  Research on the Chicago Child Parent Center did not pretest or randomly assign children, so the treatment and control groups might not be comparable. In research of the Carolina Abecedarian Project, children were randomly assigned, but more families dropped out of the treatment group than the control group, which might affect comparability. Whitehurst contends that these flaws cast doubt on the validity of the Heckman curve and consequently, on the value of universal early childhood programs.

When examining their arguments more closely, especially distinguishing between cognitive and non-cognitive skills, it appears that Heckman and Whitehurst may both be correct. Whitehurst often cites short term studies that evaluate student performance on tests such as NAEP, which assesses cognitive skills.  Heckman, in comparison, highlights long-term benefits arising from children’s development of non-cognitive skills.  A systematic review of 55 studies by the World Bank revealed consistent findings. ECD programs in developing countries tended to increase socio-emotional development and these effects became more prominent as children aged.

Such non-cognitive skills, while crucial for life success, aren’t measured by traditional academic tests.  High quality ECD programs increase the development of soft skills such as perseverance, interpersonal communication, sociability, self-confidence, and socio-emotional regulation.  These skills are needed to reach goals, establish healthy habits, follow laws, and maintain employment. By encouraging the growth of such soft skills, evidence shows your program can be better positioned to help children achieve the life success predicted by the Heckman Equation.

Whitehurst is also correct that the Perry Preschool Project, The Carolina Abecedarian Project and The Chicago Child Parent Center cannot represent all early childhood interventions. These were high quality programs and the impressive returns are what we can expect from investment in other high quality programs.  Merely enrolling children in any preschool program does not guarantee similar returns on investment. To help children build highly valuable life skills, your program must focus on quality. 

An assessment of 20 programs targeting children 0-6 in low and middle income countries, including India, Bolivia, and Uganda reconciles the Heckman Equation with Whitehurst’s conflicting evidence.  Programs are found to produce larger gains for younger, more disadvantaged participants, as the Heckman Equation suggests. Additionally, early education programs are found to be more effective in the development of cognitive skills when they use child-centered learning methods, meet frequently and coordinate with other ECD service providers, such as health and nutrition programs, to address children’s full range of needs. Since these characteristics are common to many quality ECD programs, the finding confirms that program effectiveness is variable and depends on quality.

The World Bank’s comprehensive report on ECD in developing countries like Mozambique, Honduras and Indonesia echoes these findings. The review of 55 impact evaluations found that ECD programs can have a variety of long-term benefits, though not every ECD program produces such results.  These long-term benefits include increased cognitive, language, and socioemotional development as well as improved health, education, and labor market outcomes.

Your program can help children develop highly valuable skills for life success by focusing on quality from the earliest stages of learning.  There are many actions you can take to improve program quality. Regardless of your approach, the first step is committing to continual improvement.  The Tula Learning Centers are using child-centered learning methods to help children develop soft skills, while the Chikkabiddy program focuses on improving lesson quality by providing teachers with regular evaluations and feedback. Such assessments can help your program achieve quality, but as a recent World Bank article explains, you must use to measures of quality that are appropriate for your local context. Whatever quality improvement strategies you choose, it is certain that your commitment to continual innovation in the pursuit of quality is needed to prepare children to reach their full potential and lead fulfilling lives.

Megan Malisani is an Early Childhood Development intern at Results for Development Institute.  She studies economics and actuarial science at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Photo Credit: FACE Salam Project for Street Children, Ilifa Labantwana Newsletter.



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