“The entire literature on successful early interventions… [indicates] that the social skills and motivation of the child are more easily alternated than his or her IQ.”(Heckman p. 171)

In the preceding entry, Heckman and Carneiro made it evident in their “Human Capital Policy” essay that interventions aimed at improving academic output and closing scholastic inequities at the high school level are largely ineffective. In this entry, they assess the effectiveness of early childhood and adolescent investments. As they previously emphasized, “both cognitive and noncognitive skills appear early and, if anything, widen over the life cycle of the child.”(p. 163) This perspective implies an imperative to develop the necessary skills as early as possible so as to avert a divergence in opportunities and returns.

The authors cite 10 recent experiments, all of whose returns were rather high. Most of these studies specifically targeted youths from disadvantaged backgrounds and most of them successfully raised motivation and noncognitive skills while one even managed to raise IQ. In the latter intervetion’s case, the estimated return over the course of the participating subjects’ lives amounts to about $8.70 on every dollar that was spent, 65% of which is attributed to reductions in crime. Other experiments achieved 70% reductions in crime when compared to their non-participating counterparts. They also demonstrated higher graduation rates and improved test scores. However, the improved test scores and graduation rates were not as consistent across studies. This was due to the need for continued access to higher quality schools in order to nurture and build upon the improvements achieved during in pre-school. Most notably, the programs improved noncognitive and motivational skills. Since the discussion is geared towards lifetime income and equity, the lack of increase in IQ is offset by improvement in one’s emotional, and noncognitive skills, that in themselves pay immense dividends. Despite the success of these programs though, the authors are very cautious in prescribing these policies due to their limited statistical validity and arduous upscaling.

Heckman and Carneiro then address “programs aimed at intervening in the lives of children in their teen years [that] redress the damage of bad childhoods.”(p. 174) One poignant fact they establish right away is that IQ levels are unlikely to be rectified as they tend to stabilize at the tender age of 8 and grow from thereon in parallel. In their survey of pertinent studies, the authors cited programs ranging from Big Brothers/Big Sisters in which kids are provided adult mentors to STEP in which kids fulfill employment and academic hours during the summer. The results of these programs are mixed. Programs, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, displayed more developed social behavior and better grades than their non-participating peers. On the other hand, programs such as TPD had results depend on the participants’ status. If they enrolled while still in high school, they benefited while if they enrolled after dropping out of high school, participants encountered a “potentially negative effect” on their income and employment. More depressingly, the program, STEP, resulted in only short-term elevation in scores and no gains were made in graduation or completion rates. These studies collectively show immense variation in effectiveness for different demographic groups and that most efficacy is attained in “sustained interventions targeted at adolescents still enrolled in school.”(p. 181)

The results outlined above underscore the overarching theme of Heckman and Corneiro’s paper: early childhood interventions are more effective in brewing academically and socially successful children while simultaneously closing achievement disparities. Although very thorough, Heckman and Carneiro’s literary assessment suffers from the focus on dropout rates and disadvantaged youths at extremes. As a result, their conclusions cannot be extended to the disadvantaged but more highly motivated and capable pupils. Unfortunately, they do not attempt to remedy this shortsightedness in existing literature.



Heckman, J., Krueger, A. (2005). Human Capital Policy. Inequality in America: What Role for Human Capital Policies? 163-181