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An IQ Test for Policy Wonks

Early childhood intervention seems like one of the few anti-poverty programs that liberals can sell politically. And that's no surprise: Who wants to argue against spending money to help kids, even poor ones? The trouble is that it hasn't always been clear these programs work. In particular, evidence suggests that preschools and other programs for poor children have only a temporary effect: Kids show gains in IQ but, within a few years, those gains disappear.

But now comes reason to think these programs really do have impact. It's a paper by Flavio Cunha from the University of Pennsylvania and James Heckman from the University of Chicago.

I haven't read the paper but Jonah Lehrer of Wired has. According to Lehrer, the two scholars examined data from several educational experiments around the country, including one at the Perry School in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which divided 123 low-income, low-IQ African-American students into a control group (with no formal preschool education) and an experimental group (with high-quality preschool education).

Lehrer summarizes the findings:

The subjects were then tracked over the ensuing decades, with the most recent analysis comparing the groups at the age of 40. The differences, even decades after the intervention, were stark: Adults assigned to the preschool program were 20 percent more likely to have graduated from high school and 19 percent less likely to have been arrested more than five times. They got much better grades, were more likely to remain married and were less dependent on welfare programs.
How does preschool work its magic? Interestingly, the Perry Preschool didn’t lead to a lasting boost in IQ scores. While kids exposed to preschool got an initial bump in general intelligence, this dissipated by second grade. Instead, preschool seemed to improve performance on a variety of “non-cognitive” abilities, such as self-control, persistence and grit. While society has long obsessed over raw smarts--just look at our fixation on IQ scores--Heckman and Cunha argue that these non-cognitive traits are often more important. They note, for instance, that dependability is the trait most valued by employers, while “perseverance, dependability and consistency are the most important predictors of grades in school.” Of course, these valuable skills have little or anything to do with general intelligence. And that’s probably a good thing, since our non-cognitive traits are much more malleable, at least when interventions occur at an early age, than IQ. Preschool might not make us smarter--our intelligence is strongly shaped by our genes--but it can make us a better person, and that’s even more important.

Kevin Drum adds that the data is consistent with findings that such early childhood interventions reduce the likelihood that children will commit crime as adults. "If you're looking for projects that are likely to have really high ratios of benefits to costs," Drum notes, "these are your babies."