THE ZERO TO THREE DEBATE...A Cautionary Look at Turning Science into Policy

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."

The report inspired actor/director Rob Reiner to develop a national public awareness campaign [on early childhood development].

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 previously thought;
  • early environmental influences on the brain are long-lasting;
  • early environmental influences affect the way that the brain is "hard-wired"; and
  • 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 development programs.

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.[1]

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 childhood development.

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 equivocal findings."

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."

[1] 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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