Arnold Kling  

Targeting Aid to the Poor

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James Heckman writes,


Although much public policy discussion focuses on the failings of schools, a major finding from the research literature is that schools and school quality contribute little to the emergence of test-score gaps among children. By the second grade, gaps in ranks of test scores across socioeconomic groups are stable, suggesting that later schooling has little effect in reducing or widening the gaps that appear before students enter school. In work with Pedro Carneiro, I performed a cost-benefit analysis of classroom-size reduction on adult earnings. While smaller classes raise the adult earnings of students, the earnings gains do not offset the costs of hiring additional teachers. The best way to improve schools is to improve the students sent to them. A substantial benefit of early interventions is improvement of the performance of disadvantaged children in schools.

...Important operational details of investment programs for disadvantaged children remain to be determined. Children from advantaged environments, by and large, receive substantial early investment, while children from disadvantaged environments more often do not. There is little basis for providing universal programs at zero cost, although some advocate such a policy. While there is a strong case for public support for funding interventions in the early childhood of disadvantaged children, there is no reason for the interventions to be conducted in public centers. Vouchers that can be used in privately run programs would promote competition and efficiency in the provision of early enrichment programs.


To summarize, Heckman argues that in order to be cost-effective, efforts to improve cognitive ability among the poor should

1. Focus on very young children
2. Target poor children, rather than all children
3. Allow the private sector competition to operate

Heckman does not discuss "No Child Left Behind," but I would note that this expensive program violates all three of those ideas.


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CATEGORIES: Income Distribution



TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/427
The author at G as in Good H as in Happy in a related article titled Minding the Kids: Treasure or Trouble writes:
    ...such thoughts are appealing and rational-sounding, but there are many caveats... [Tracked on January 10, 2006 8:28 PM]
COMMENTS (4 to date)
Robert Speirs writes:

Isn't it pretty clear from over a century of programs that efforts to "raise cognitive ability" among a group of children with a mixed level of innate cognitive abilities will help those children with higher IQs (there, I said it!) and have little or no effect on those with average-to-below-average cognitive ability?

nn writes:

Robert, I presume that you're excluding the case of very young children with low iq due to malnutrition?

I believe the evidence there is that micro-nutrients and related aid will boost iq across the board.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

So Robert is arguing that such programs are unwise because they will only help some of the students who participate?

And here are some questions for Arnold:

Of the three conclusions you list, which result from Heckman's careful analysis of the data, and which are an expression of his personal beliefs?

Are Heckman's conclusions as to the benefits of these programs based on data from government programs or voucher-supported ones?

Suppose it proved politically or practically impossible to offer vouchers for this activity, and it was a matter of having a government program or no program at all. Which would you prefer?

Robert Speirs writes:

No, I'm saying that they won't achieve the results people assume they will. A rising tide lifts only seaworthy boats.

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