But the question of how much public funds should go into this is more a
question of whether we're getting value for our dollar by putting it into
high-quality programs. The problem is sometimes we take a good model that's
been shown to work, and then we try to bring it to scale and do it to serve
more children for less money, with less well training of the staff; and we get
more confusing and equivocal findings. So that's the problem.
The problem is not whether early intervention is a good public investment. The
problem is whether we invest in high-quality services that are shown to make a
difference. And as we found in our report, although the science tells us
interventions can be effective when they're administered early, effective
interventions are not simple. They're rarely inexpensive, and they're not
always easy to implement. ...
Why do you think proponents of early childhood education use the brain
research to help raise money for their programs?
We can have a cynical view of that, and we can have a kind of a more generous
view. The cynical view is that brain research captures people's attention and
imagination. The public responds to stories about brain development, so that's
a cynical view. It's a good strategy to get attention. But the more generous
view is that, if we're concerned about the impact of early experience and
interventions on children's abilities, on children's competence, on how your
intellectual development is going on, on how they're progressing socially,
we're talking about the brain. That's where all of these things happen.
The disconnect is that we don't have a lot of brain science related to many of
these early interventions. So people are really making guesses; they're making
extrapolations. But they're good guesses, because if we see effects of
interventions that produce gains in confidence and gains in development, then
we know by inference that it's the brain, even though we haven't studied that
in the brain per se. We've studied it in looking at development and behavior,
which is really another way of looking at the brain.
Many people think that brain research is restricted to looking at the cell
structure of the brain, looking at the effects of the chemical systems in the
brain. That is a way to study the brain. But another way to study brain
development is to look at what people are capable of doing, because it's the
brain that really determines that.
Do you think there is a "myth of the first three years?"
It depends on what you mean by a myth. So if you ask me is it a myth that what
happens in the first three years determines everything that happens afterward
and the window shuts at age three? Absolutely that's a myth. It's just not
If you ask me whether the first three years are a very important time in which
rapid brain growth is taking place and brain development is proceeding in a
very rapid clip and that experiences really affect that development, and affect
it in a very big and important way in the first three years? That's not a myth.
That's the truth. That's science. It's absolutely true.
New research shows that there is an explosion of growth in the brain around
the 11-year, 12-year mark, and then a subsequent pruning back of that growth.
What do you think of that research, and what does it say?
Well, I'm less of an expert on development in the early adolescent years than I
am in early childhood. But there's a clear message that goes across the whole
life span. Brain development starts before we're born, and brain development
continues until we die, or until we're declared brain-dead, which is one way of
There are predictable periods in which there is more rapid development of the
brain, [and] in which there's more gradual development. There are parts of
brain development that involve the expansion and proliferation of connections.
There are parts of normal development that involve a pruning back. All of this
is very biologically programmed, but also heavily influenced by experience and
by the environment. It just differs from one age period to another, and we're
learning more and more all the time what those differences are.
It's not a different kind of process at one age from what it is at another.
It's always an interaction of your kind of genetic makeup and your
environmental experiences. It's just that different parts of the brain mature
at different ages. Different parts of the brain are more plastic or more open
to change at different times than others. But it's the same process that really
continues, as best as we know it at this point, all the way through.
If there is an explosion of growth and pruning in those early adolescent
years, we also see that there are great vulnerabilities of the teenage years.
It seems similar to this period of early childhood. A lot of resources were
poured into early childhood. You may not think there was enough, but there was
a lot. Do we need the same sort of resources poured into the teenage
... If you invest early and create a strong foundation, it's easier to get a
better return on your investments later, because you're just building on
strength. If you don't invest early and you have a weak foundation, then your
later investments are trying to make up for deficiencies. Some of the gains may
be just trying to regain ground that you've lost. So I think it's a big mistake
for us to ask about whether we should invest early or late.
In fact, when we invest early, if we stop investing -- particularly for
children who are facing risks in their lives -- we lose some of the gains, the
positive gains of early investment. If we wait and allow children to go without
help who are at risk and we save our money to invest later, we're starting from
further back; in fact, we're trying to make up ground, and we won't get as good
a return on investment. So I think we have to think of this as a lifelong
What created the "myth of the first three years" that John Bruer talks about
in his book?
The problem is that parents were getting two very strong messages that seemed
to be coming from credible sources, saying the opposite thing. One message was
saying that if things don't happen in the first three years, it's going to be
difficult -- if not impossible -- to make that up. And another very strong and
authoritative message was saying there's nothing special about the first three
years that's different from any other.
The lesson that we can take in terms of public education on this issue is that
any kind of overly harsh statement in one direction or another is unlikely to
be completely true, because the truth really is somewhere in between those two
extremes. And this is where the truth is. Are the first three years of life
important? Absolutely. There's no question they're important.
Does the window shut at age three on certain things and it's too late to do
anything about it? Absolutely not, when it comes to intellectual development,
language development, social or emotional development. There are critical
periods early in development for children; but they tend to be in very tightly
defined areas, mostly around things like vision, kind of an auditory
perception. There are relatively sensitive or critical periods there.
But when it comes to things like intellectual development, emotional
development, their social development, there is not a shred of evidence that
there's a critical period for any of those dimensions. At the same time, the
first three years are very important for the foundation in each of those areas.
So this is kind of where the truth is. It's both important, but not the be-all
and the end-all.
The danger of the misinterpretation is to go to either of two extreme
falsehoods. One is that it doesn't matter, therefore it doesn't matter what
happens in the first couple of years; you can always make it up later,
therefore don't waste public funds and invest. That's a huge mistake. That's
against everything we know about science.
Another danger would go to the other extreme and say, "Put all of our
investments in the first three years, because that's where it really matters,
and let's not worry about investing afterward." That would be a huge mistake.
Both of those would be mistakes, not just because it doesn't make sense, but
because the science doesn't support that at all. It's nice when science and
common sense come together. I think this is one example where they both come
But there is only a finite pot of money. People have to make decisions to
spend it in one way or another.
So where do they get guidance on that?
To the extent that science can provide guidance, the answer from science would
be to take a long-term perspective -- think about what the different needs are
at different points in the life span, and to be really smart about how you make
And the other issue here is that we need to bring in more into the policy
debates. The argument should not just be whether we should spend more or less
money at a given age period. The argument should be, "What's the smartest way
to invest our money? What's the best way to get the biggest bang for the buck?"
What that means is there are some ways we're spending money early on where
we're not spending enough. There are other areas where maybe we're spending
more than we need to spend.
So it's being smart about it, and making strategic investments and thinking
long term. If you're interested in the early years, also think about the years
that follow, because if you get positive gains from early investments and then
you pay no attention, what happens afterward [is that] children in high-risk
environments will lose the gains that they've made early on. ...
Do you sense that there is a political agenda out there right now about
these issues of learning?
I think there's always a political agenda out there around learning, and the
politics change over time. And I don't think it's realistic for us to expect
that that issues around children's needs and families' needs would ever be
apolitical. What's important is that we separate out the political agenda,
which is real, from what the knowledge base is.
And I won't pretend to think that knowledge will totally drive our politics.
But certainly if we're interested in achieving certain goals, if we're
interested, for example, in enhancing school readiness and recognizing that
it's a political issue, at least answering the question of how we enhance
school readiness, would depend a lot on what we know about what children need
to be ready for school. And that is first a knowledge-based question. Then we
can take that knowledge and decide how it's going to play out on the political
But what gets us into trouble sometime is that the politics defines the
knowledge. And then we have very strong positions on programs that really are
disconnected from the knowledge base, and that's unfortunate. It's really
imperative that we can separate out what do we know from what do we believe and
what are our political values. And then we can make a decision as a society
about where to go. ...
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