In January 1998, Georgia Governor Zell Miller entered the state legislature
armed with a tape of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Citing research that proposed
a connection between listening to classical music and increased mathematics and
spatial reasoning ability, the governor asked for $105,000 to produce and
distribute a classical music CD to parents of newborns throughout the state. As
he made his request, Miller played a few minutes of "Ode to Joy." "Now don't
you feel smarter already?" he asked the lawmakers. "Smart enough to vote for
this budget item, I hope."
But it turned out a vote was unnecessary. Sony Music Corp. agreed to
provide the CDs for free, and in June 1998 parents of newborns in Georgia left
the hospital with music in hand.
Gov. Miller's initiative is one of the best-known examples of how some
politicians and advocacy groups have wanted to translate research into public
policy -- specifically, neurological research suggesting that the age of zero to three
is the most critical period for a child's brain growth. However, an
examination of the controversy over what has become known as the zero-to-three movement shows that there are potential pitfalls in seizing prematurely on scientific research. Here's a summary of the zero-to-three
movement and its advocates and critics.
Policy Initiatives of the Zero-to-Three Movement
Four years before Gov. Miller's presentation to the legislature in Georgia, the
Carnegie Foundation released a 1994 paper called "Starting Points: Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children."
The document warned that the United States was facing a "quiet crisis" due to
inadequate child care and the high cost of children's health care, and drew
upon five key neuroscience findings to make its recommendations:
- the brain's development between the prenatal period and the first year of
life was more extensive than previously thought;
- brain development is more susceptible to early environmental influences than
- early environmental influences on the brain are long-lasting;
- early environmental influences affect the way that the brain is
- early stress has been proven to have a negative impact on brain function.
According to "Starting Points," the risks of an adverse environment on early
childhood development were clear. The report warned, "In some cases these
effects may be irreversible." However, it also concluded that "the
opportunities are equally dramatic: a good start in life can do more to promote
learning and prevent damage than we ever imagined," and advocated that the U.S.
make a "national investment" by devoting more resources to early childhood
The Carnegie Foundation's report inspired actor-director Rob Reiner to develop
a national public awareness campaign. He created the I Am Your Child
Foundation in 1997 and led a 1998 campaign to pass Proposition 10 in California.
Proposition 10 warned: "It has been determined that a child's first three
years are the most critical in brain development, yet these crucial years have
inadvertently been neglected." Proposition 10 called for the proceeds of a
50-cent increase in the state tax on tobacco products to be directed toward
anti-smoking and early childhood development programs. The measure was narrowly
passed by voters in 1998, and became known as the California Children and
Families First Act.
At the national level, the milestone for zero-to-three advocates was the
White House Conference on Early Development and Learning on April 17, 1997. Hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton,
the conference invited scientists, pediatricians, child development experts, and
researchers to discuss the latest neuroscience findings in children's brain
development. At the conclusion of the day-long event, several policy
initiatives were announced, including the extension of health care to 5
million uninsured children; the expansion of the Early Head Start program,
which targeted children ages zero to three and pregnant women; and the distribution of
"Ready*Set*Read" early childhood development activity kits to programs
throughout the country. Rob Reiner gave the keynote address and said
the zero-to-three theory was a way of dealing with "problem solving at every
level of society." He told the group:
"If we want to have a real significant impact, not only on
children's success in school and later on in life, healthy
relationships, but also an impact on reduction in crime,
teen pregnancy, drug abuse, child abuse, welfare,
homelessness, and a variety of other social ills, we are
going to have to address the first three years of life. There
is no getting around it. All roads lead to Rome."
Critics of the Zero-to-Three Theory
Critics have charged that zero-to-three advocates have misunderstood the
neuroscience findings, and are using them to advance a public policy agenda
that may be premature. "If our intent is to use science and research to form
policy, to guide educational practice and to give parents assistance, it's
incumbent on people putting forth those arguments to get the science right,"
says John Bruer, chairman of the James S. McDonnell Foundation. "If they
choose not to get the science right, if they choose to misinterpret it or
over-simplify, we just have another instance of political rhetoric."
In his 1999 book, The Myth of the First Three Years, Bruer charged that
there are three recurrent neuroscience findings upon which the zero-to-three movement bases its argument, and that
these findings run through the popular literature on the brain and early
The first is that in many species, including humans, researchers have observed
a burst of "biological exuberance" during the months before and directly after
birth, in which there is a rapid increase in the number of synapses -- or
connections -- in the brain.
The second finding is that during the earliest years of life, there are windows
of opportunity, known as "critical periods," during which the brain requires
certain stimuli for normal development. This is believed to be true for visual
and auditory development.
The third strand of the myth is the notion of "enriched environments." In an
experiment with rats, William Greenough discovered that the brains of
young rats placed in environments with lots of stimulation developed more
synaptic connections than those raised in more austere environments. Bruer
argues the zero-to-three movement has incorrectly extrapolated Greenough's
findings to apply to young humans, and threaded these three strands together in a
narrative he calls "the myth of the first three years."
"What the myth does is to weave those three ideas together to try to make a
very strong story that brain science tells us that the first three years of
life are an absolutely critical period for brain development," Bruer tells
FRONTLINE. "But when you pick apart the three strands, you can't make that
strong of an argument. It's a myth."
Many researchers agree with Bruer.They say that focusing on the first three
years of life as the critical period for development may be premature.
"There's been a great deal of emphasis in the 1990s on the critical importance
of the first three years. I certainly applaud those efforts," says Jay
Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health. "But what
happens sometimes when an area is emphasized so much, is other areas are
forgotten. And even though the first three years are important, so are the next 16.
And [during] the ages between three and 16, there's still enormous dynamic activity
happening in brain biology. I think that that might have been somewhat
overlooked with the emphasis on the early years."
When Politics and Science Mix
No one would dispute that a child's experiences during the earliest years of
his life are critically important to his development. For example, research
on attachment theory has shown that the bond between child and caretaker is
critically important and many theorists believe this bond is formed during the
first three years of life.
However, according to Bruer, many are reluctant to base policy proposals on
attachment theory. "It seems that, when it comes to policy or science or
parenting or health, somehow biology is real science and behavioral
science is not," he says. "What's really unfortunate about that approach is
that we have much more to learn from behavioral science about educating and
raising our children than we do from brain science right now."
None of the experts who spoke to FRONTLINE for "Inside the
Teenage Brain" believes that the decision to fund programs focused on early
childhood development or the teenage years should be an either/or proposition.
"The danger of the misinterpretation is to go to either of two extreme
falsehoods. One is that ... 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," says Jack Shonkoff, a professor of human development and
social policy at Brandeis University. "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."
According to Shonkoff, there is evidence that the types of programs advocated
by zero-to-three groups can be effective. "We have very good evidence that
well-designed and well-implemented early childhood programs, like a good
quality Head Start program or other kinds of interventions, can definitely
shift the odds toward better outcomes for children," he says. But, he warns,
while we're still interpreting the scientific results, we should focus on
funding programs that have a proven track record.
"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," says Shonkoff. "And we get more confusing and
Bruer believes that in applying science to public policy, "Our challenge is to
figure out how to use the science to best maximize our return." Distributing
classical music CDs to the parents of newborns is probably not an example of a
policy designed to offer the best return. In his book, Bruer notes that the
author of the study cited by Gov. Miller of Georgia and other politicians
distanced herself from Miller's proposal. She pointed out that her work had
been done on college students, not infants.
Bruer argues that we need to move beyond the current attention paid to directing a
lion's share of resources to children between the ages of zero and three. "The
bigger challenge is to say, 'Well, a citizen of any age that wants to learn
something -- how do we design learning experiences and environments that will
facilitate those changes?'" he declares. "Children can benefit from that
research; adolescents can benefit from that research. So can adults."
 The legislation has survived several
attacks by the tobacco industry, including an attempt to repeal the additional
tax on tobacco products and a legal challenge to halt collection on the tax,
which was rejected by a judge in November 2000.
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