The Fade-Out Debate

Perhaps the hottest argument around early education centers on whether its benefits ultimately fade out, making it a foolhardy investment. The phenomenon of fade-out is real, according to Andres Hojman, an economist at the University of Chicago. Hojman has documented a loss of at least some of the skills gained in all of the ten early-childhood programs he’s studying. But he says that even though some of the gains disappear, the interventions are still valuable. “We shouldn’t be criticizing ‘fade-out’ as if it were deadly,” Hojman says.

That, though, is often what happens when the matter of fade-out comes up in discussions of early-childhood policy, as it did after a particularly dispiriting evaluation of Head Start was released in December 2012. The review, done by the Department of Health and Human Services, found that, by third grade, no demonstrable gains were evident among the students who had attended Head Start. In some quarters, the study was proof that the program was a waste of public resources. The Heritage Foundation summarized the report as “Government Preschool Fails Completely,” while columnist Charles Krauthammer used it to slam President Barack Obama’s pre-K proposal as “useless.”

The truth, however, is more nuanced than either of those characterizations and hinges not just on the quality of the study measuring the effect of early education but also on what the intervention is aiming to achieve. Consider that Head Start, established as part of the War on Poverty in the 1960s, was never exclusively—or even primarily—conceived of as an early-education program. Among other things, Head Start has always been a means to combat malnutrition; the program serves meals to children and also connects them to health care and other social services. Whatever cognitive benefits are gained or lost have no bearing on these other functions.

Then there’s the matter of what happens after Head Start. “The question shouldn’t be what happened in Head Start but what happened after the children left the program,” says Amanda Moreno, an assistant professor of child cognitive development at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. One phenomenon that typically occurs is that those who lag behind their peers in kindergarten get more attention from teachers trying to help them catch up. Indeed, some studies show schools working harder with—and thus spending more on—children who haven’t had early education.

The other important question about fade-out is which benefits diminish over time. In both the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian, or ABC, project, which have been the subject of extensive research, the improvement in IQ scores of students who have been through these programs tends to shrink over time. Yet the noncognitive gains by students who have attended these programs—such “soft” skills as persistence, self-discipline, dependability—tend to remain.

“Perry had fade-out. It had the IQ surge, and then it faded out at age ten,” says economist James Heckman. “But if you look at the measures of noncognitive skills, there was no fade-out. It suggests that we may be looking at the wrong set of traits.” According to Heckman, a Nobel winner who has studied the economic benefits of early-childhood interventions to individuals and society at large, the noncognitive gains not only don’t diminish but often yield benefits that grow and expand over time. “In Perry,” he says, “the achievement test scores didn’t fade out. What’s a big component of achievement tests? It’s conscientiousness, self-control, motivation. So what you’re getting is that these kids, even though they’re no smarter at age ten in terms of an IQ test, they’re actually doing better on achievement tests because they’re learning more in school.”

Critically, Heckman says, these enduring skills are more closely tied to success in adulthood than the cognitive gains that tend to disappear. “People have been so fixated on these very narrow measures. But they aren’t that predictive of life outcomes,” says Heckman. “It’s truly a fixation, and it misdirects a lot of social policy, including early-childhood policy. I think it’s also misdirecting things like No Child Left Behind, misdirecting a lot of other measurements of accountability systems and the whole idea of whether schools are working.” 

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