On my way to where the air is sweet

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

Freakonomics Radio looks at an early education intervention that taught poor parents in Chicago Heights how to teach their own preschool-age children cogntivie and non-cognitive skills:

LIST: So, a first thing to note is we have huge differences across kids. Now, what I mean by that is that our program really, really helps Hispanic and white students and it doesn’t help blacks at all.

DUBNER: How disappointing was it to see that Hispanics and whites moved a lot and blacks didn’t?

LIST: Yeah, I think it’s a mixed bag. I think that when we started down this research agenda, part of our mission was, first of all, to learn about the racial achievement gap and learn about how we can lower that gap. Most of the time we lump Hispanic and African-American kids together, and we say, “What is the solution for minorities in public education?”


LEVITT: And to be honest, we have no real theory for why that is. The two sets of parents were equally engaged in the program and we can control for all sorts of background characteristics and nothing really explains it. So to me that’s really a puzzle, and a puzzle that I don’t have an answer for.


LEVITT: Upon entry into the program, we tested kids to see where they stood in terms of their cognitive skills — how well they could, you know, do the alphabet and math and whatnot — and also their non-cognitive skills, about how well they could sit still and keep things in memory. And what was incredibly interesting to me in our findings is that for the kids who were below average on these non-cognitive skills — the ability to concentrate, to remember things, to kind of think their way through problems — the below-average kids made no progress in our program. So if you started behind, in terms of how ready you were to learn in some sense, then you got nothing out of our program. And that was true whether you scored high on the cognitive scores or not. So, kids could be really high achievers in terms of math and reading but gain nothing from our program if they didn’t have these sort of sit-still skills. But on the other hand if you were above average on these non-cognitive skills, you got huge benefits from our program.

A different intervention seemed to work better at closing the gap:

KEARNEY: We find that kids who were pre-school age in places where they could watch Sesame Street were 14 percent less likely to fall behind when they got to elementary school. If we try and make a comparison of that number to what we see in the literature studying, for example, the Head Start program, our nation’s publicly funded pre-school program, the estimated effects on school performance are very similar.


KEARNEY: This costs $5 a year per kid to produce [vs. $8,000 for Head Start].


KEARNEY: And in fact, that effect is entirely driven by kids who grew up in counties with higher levels of economic disadvantage. So, I mean places that had higher levels of high school drop-out, had a higher rate of single-parent households, had lower household income on average — these were the kids that really saw a relative improvement in their school performance. The effect is largest for boys and African-Americans.


  1. Graham says:

    I found this particularly noteworthy in that I clearly need to adjust my understanding of the line between cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

    Apart from that, I remember Sesame Street. A slightly Canadianized version of it aired here at least as early as the early 1970s. It was brilliant. Hard to find fault with it as a method of engaging kids with letters and numbers early in life. Greatest propaganda instrument of the last 50 years, too.

Leave a Reply