Lawrence Aber

Learning begets learning

VTR Date: April 7, 2008

Lawrence Aber discusses the case for early investment in youth education.


GUEST: Lawrence Aber
VTR: 04/07/08

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And about today’s guest, let me say that some months back he wrote a most provocative lead piece for the monumental Special Report in The American Prospect titled “Life Chances: The Case For Early Investment In Our Kids”.

Lawrence Aber is professor of applied psychology and public policy at New York University and board chair of its new Institute on Human Development and Social Change.

Dr. Aber first joined me here in 2001 actually, several months after “9/11”, when the anxieties provoked by that killing day — particularly among our youngest Americans — had at least momentarily focused our attention on their fate … and thus, in turn, on ours as a nation.

My wife, the psychiatric professional in the family, had enthusiastically told me about a symposium at which she had just heard Dr. Aber comment ever so wisely on its intriguingly evocative title, “When The Bough Breaks”. You remember: “Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top. When the wind blows, the cradle will rock. And when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. And down will come baby, cradle and all.”

Well, the winds now blow fiercely at the boughs that hold American babies’ cradles: … the winds of war and terrorism, of course, but also of national poverty, abuse, inadequate education, parental and societal ignorance or indifference. And when those boughs break, surely down will come babies, cradles and all.

Of course, the point that Larry Aber made so compellingly in the American Prospect is that we must now change the climate of early childhood in America, and that some national leader must now step up to make the case for equitable public investments in early childhood on an adequate scale.

He wrote:

“We need the early childhood equivalent of the global climate change movement’s dynamic duo to make that case: the creative, analytic, persistent scientists who continually advance our understanding of developing systems that support and sustain life; ‘who know, for instance, I would suggest, that learning begets learning’ and a scientifically curious major politician schooled in persistence in the face of heartbreak.”

My guest jokes, “Al Gore already has a job”.

“[So] Which major politician on the American scene has the skill and the drive to become the ozone man or woman of inner space and early human development?”

Now that’s a quite interesting question to raise at Presidential election time. And I wonder if my guest has any answers. Larry? You’re on the spot.

ABER: Happy to be on the spot, especially with you, Richard. And I do have answers. And I suspect you know one or two of them. The first big answer is that I do think there’s a bright line difference between Democratic candidates and the Republican candidate, this time. And has been for over a decade.

The Republican Party in general has been less willing to make public investments in childhood across the board. The Democratic Party has been more willing.

But before we see this only as partisan, I, I do believe there’s a strong minority in the Republican Party that has over the last two decades become increasingly convinced in the business case for early investments. And I think there’s a part of the Democratic Party that has not responded to the challenges that we face. And may not still … even if they have both control of both Houses of Congress and, and the White House.

So, my first answer as a Democrat, not a Republican but my second answer … and I’ll … if you want to, I’ll talk about specific Democrats.

My second answer is it’s going to take a majoritarian politics to make this change. So — if — and this might tip my hand a little bit … if, we remain as polarized, nationally, as we are … it is hard to conceive of the consensus politics that it’s going to take to change the nature of investments in childhood.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “consensus politics”?

ABER: Ahmm, my observation of the politics of poverty, welfare, education early investment over the last 25 years suggests that very few stable big decisions are made by one party alone. It’s just not the nature of American political life right now.

So, there has to be a veto proof majority in the Senate for any major costly legislation to be passed. Where … that’s going to require a combination of majority Democrats and a half a dozen or eight enlightened Republicans and Independents to make this happen. And that’s been almost impossible to do over the last decade.

So by “consensus” I mean something that moderate Republicans, independent minded Republicans could join Democrats in.

HEFFNER: You say “moderate Republicans”, then you modify that and say, “independent minded Republicans”. Are you saying that because the changes that you feel need to be made are themselves so radical?

ABER: I say that because of two reasons. The first is that there are some more traditional conservative Republicans who are independent minded enough to make investments in early childhood. So, there are more traditional moderate Republicans like Olympia Snow who’s already there … the Senator from Maine.

But Chuck Hagel out of the Midwest, you might not think of as being able to support this. And would for moral and religious reasons, having to do with investments in, in very poor young children. So that’s the reason I’m saying that.

HEFFNER: What stands in the way of the realization that “when the bough breaks, the cradle” and the whole kit and caboodle will fall to the ground.

ABER: Well, I, I think … as I was trying to say in the American Prospect piece, part of it is that like the global warming issue … science has only slowly been able to be as persuasive and definitive as it is about how critical the early years are.

Just like it took a while for science to demonstrate when our mothers knew that smoking was bad for them … and demonstrate that environmental changes happening through pollutants … the scientific case … nailing the scientific case on the critical importance of early childhood … has just come to us.

But the second and biggest part is that the children who are farthest behind in America in terms of early investments are our poorest kids and America still has a set of collective beliefs about the causes of poverty and the preferred solutions to poverty that really make it hard for us to have a, a consensus political perspective on this issue.

HEFFNER: You mean that it’s someone’s fault?

ABER: Yes. So if you say the words “child poverty” to a large number of Americans and you probe, they believe that the causes of child poverty are idle parents, who are not sufficiently taking care of business to take care of their kids and the preferred solution then is disciplining them into “up by bootstraps” solutions.

And that’s the war that we fought in the mid-nineties related to welfare reform. And a national consensus emerged around that.

Over a decade later, it is clear that there are some elements of truth to that, but that there are big structural issues that remain to be solved and that are the bigger causes of poverty, including early childhood poverty.

So, just two examples. Although the minimum wage has been increased recently, it is still possible to work 50 weeks a year, 40 hours a week for minimum wage and not lift your family out of poverty. Low wage jobs don’t come with benefits and don’t equal an income that gets you out of poverty.

That structural situation is at least as important as the behavioral ones in explaining early childhood poverty. Then you couple that with the fact that, as I said in the American Prospect piece, between 60 and 80% of America’s public investment in kids happen in K-12 education.

As troubling and unequal as the public education system is in general, it is still a huge corrective in the class disparities in resources for children.

The American public education systems makes poor kids and rich kids more alike than … in good ways … than without it. Well, for the first four years of life we have no equivalent investment strategy.

The disparities between the rich and the poor are starkest because the public sector isn’t making investments in early childhood. And this is pretty unreasonable given the growing evidence that the first four years of life are at least as important, as least as influential as later.

Not, not the only important period of time, but we go into our efforts to create education equity with one hand tied behind our back if we don’t do anything publicly in the first four years of life.

HEFFNER: Is that because … again a suggestion from your American Prospect piece … is that because we have not thought about those early years while focusing on the K-12 years?

ABER: In part. I think there was a long standing national consensus that children needed to be educated for the work force and for citizenship at least starting at age six or seven. That’s been with us for over a century.

And … but we, for over a century considered the first five years of life more the private family domain and there was a political and cultural hesitation to have the state be involved in the first five years of life. Except, of course, it is. The changing structure of the American economy means that now it takes two parents to earn the same income as it took one parent to earn in 1950.

There are structural reasons women are at work. If women go to work there’s got to be something that happens with young kids if we don’t want to throw them on the stones. And so, that, that cultural belief is changing.

But the cultural belief is actually a little bit ahead … the changes in culture now, and those beliefs are a little bit ahead of our changes of investments and our changes in politics. And I, I tried to make that point in the American Prospect, too.

It’s really now a political issue, in my opinion … what to do with the first four years of life.

HEFFNER: Not a scientific issue?

ABER: I think that we … we have enough persuasive information now to say that it is irrational and irresponsible not to invest in effective strategies in the first four years of life.

I’m a scientist. I am always going to want to know more and study more, and I think our public policies will benefit from continued scientific advancement. But that’s not the impediment now, the impediment now is a political one.

HEFFNER: And a leader.

ABER: And a leader.

HEFFNER: Now let’s get to the question of the leader.

ABER: Well, ahem I, I framed the article in part by saying that Al Gore’s political leadership and courage and the science of the climate change movement was a good metaphor for what I thought we needed in terms of a dynamic duo in investments in early childhood.

I think the scientific community is holding up its part. I think that there’s … and we could talk about some of the smart strategic investments in the first four years of life if you want to.

But on the political side … Al Gore would have championed this, I think, if he had been President. He’s, he’s not going to be. On the Democratic side …

HEFFNER: That’s quite a blanket statement …

ABER: It …

HEFFNER: … we are … what’s today’s date … sometime early April.

ABER: And you know from other conversations we had that I told myself earlier in the year a story in which Democrats got to either a deadlocked campaign or a deadlocked convention … and might turn to a senior leader. I thinks that’s … I think Barack Obama has performed in a way … electorally … that makes that unlikely.

I do not believe that Al Gore would step in and seize the Presidency … the nomination … under any conditions where Clinton and Barack Obama have performed so well … make such an investment.

He’s gonna … he may help weigh in and, and give some voice to who he thinks is the best leader of the party. He will not weigh in at this point.

HEFFNER: Of course, you know how wrong I think you are. But we’ve said that to each other many, many times.

Question then: if you are correct or if you are not correct, what do you see that the political leadership must do. How must it perform?

ABER: My own opinion is that if we began with the presumption that we should be spending about the same per child in public expenditures in the first four years of life as we do from kindergarten to 12th grade. That is the biggest change in, in political attitude and the biggest change in investments that we have to achieve.

HEFFNER: May I interrupt to ask … does that mean that as a scientist you feel that those early years are three times as important? Now that’s a gross question.

ABER: I’m saying that as a scientist human beings become increasingly resistant to change. Never closed to change, but developing organisms are most open to input early in development. And slowly become less so. Never down to zero.

So, so I believe in strategic changes in human capital and human development throughout the life span, including to our ages …

HEFFNER: Leave me out of it.

ABER: But, but I think the evidence is clear that we are undercapitalizing the first four years of life in a dramatic way. Even if you thought they were only equally influential, we’re still magnitudes of, of investment away from achieving that equality.

But yes, as a scientist I believe that where, where you are at any point in life influences your changes at the next point in life. And, and the earlier, the more influential.

HEFFNER: And you feel that we so damage ourselves, so damage our children …

ABER: Yeah …

HEFFNER: … our young children …

ABER: Let’s, let’s take an example. There’s now very good evidence that middle income and upper income children have three times the working vocabulary of low income children by the age of three. A factor of three times. Three times as many words in their working vocabulary.

That isn’t deigned by nature. That has to do with a set of family experiences and investments that lead to that difference. To begin pre-school education and formal education at the age of three or four … with that degree of disparity in a working vocabulary … consigns the K-12 system to have to make up for disparities that can be dramatically reduced in a more cost effective and scientifically effective way in the first three years of life.

So, that’s one of a variety of examples where strategic investments in the first three years of life will not cure every problem facing children in America, but will make many of them much more tractable, much more easy to solve given the totals we have.

HEFFNER: Was this understanding widespread in the Lyndon Johnson years?

ABER: I think in the Lyndon Johnson years we were just beginning to have both a little scientific glimmering of this, but could not yet imagine the depth of its implications for social policy and social practice.

So we talked about Head Start as if a summer six week program for four year olds would give poor kids a head start and close that gap so that by the time they started kindergarten or first grade they were equal to the task of, of meeting the same expectations as middle and upper income kids.

Ahemm, so … I don’t know whether … that’s substantially different. The central insight was right. We have to do something earlier to close the gap. The thought of the scale … of magnitude and power of the interventions was dramatically wrong. And we’ve been on a 40 year march and getting more realistic about that.

HEFFNER: Of course, I remember so well those days which naturally a kid like you wouldn’t. But getting a head start on Head Start is what you’re talking about.

ABER: Absolutely. And there is, indeed, a federal program called Early Head Start which is the first three years of life. One of the thoughts about how to invest more powerfully in the first three years of life, in America, involved taking Early Head Start to scale … making it available for all the income eligible kids in the country.

And I am an enthusiastic supporter of that. But I’m also a supporter of two or three other strategies that could vie with that. One example is … what Europeans call a “child allowance”. I think we could pay families, in the first several years of life, the equivalent of the per people expenditures that the public school system spends on kids. And allow them to make investments in different … a limited number of different strategies to enhance their young children’s development …

HEFFNER: What kinds …

ABER: … that’s closer … that’s closer to vouchers and I’m … politically I’m not there, but if that’s what it would take to get American investing differently in a consensus way, I’d be … I’d practically be open to it.

HEFFNER: Why do you … why do you make that … if not apology for vouchers … and “don’t identify me with that”?

ABER: I’m, I’m somewhat concerned that parts of the voucher movement are a Trojan horse for privatizing public education.


ABER: And I don’t have any evidence that if we allow middle class and upper income families to peel their kids off away from low income families that that’s going to be good for low income families. I’m a … I’m a kind of a targeted universalist. And we need to target the highest need children and families for special support, but in the context of a universal approach.

And, and absent a universal approach, every policy and political bone in my body says there’s going to be non-comparable investments in the poorest kids and families.

HEFFNER: What are the elements of the early, early childhood investment?

ABER: I think there’s three major elements that a major American politician should consider for leadership.

The first is family income as I indicated. I think that one of the reasons low income families’ kids do less well is that the families have less income. And they are able to go out into the private marketplace and purchase things differently. There’s a set of strategies for that.

I think the most conventional one that people think about is early care and education. Early Head Start. Early pre-school programs. Good infant/toddler programs. Things like the crèches in France. Emilla Romagna … there’s a variety of international examples like that.

The third one, though, which I think is the one that’s most actionable right now and potentially very exciting is to use the health system as a platform to develop early … and deliver early development and care.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

ABER: We’re at least a decade away from having a universal early care and education system in America. The, the public investments would be gigantic to make that investment in infrastructure.

We currently have a nearly universal child health system. Kids go for immunizations, they go for checkups, they go for emergency care, they go for primary and preventive care.

We have a structure that reaches almost all American kids through that. There are low cost, high impact strategies that one could … some of which are available now and more of which could be developed … that could be delivered through that system. Going back to my vocabulary example.

There’s a wonderful program here at Bellevue Hospital called the VIP, the Video Tape Interaction Project. Pediatricians and nurse practitioners and early childhood specialists adapt primary pediatric practice in the following way. Before a mother and her kid under three come … sees a pediatrician or a nurse practitioner, they get videotaped for 15 minutes by an early childhood specialist.

After they leave, after they’re done with their medical visit, they go back to the early childhood specialist and have another 15 minute session.

The early childhood specialist does basically two things … in a positive way. They identify times when there was good language communication between the mother and the child — and positively reinforce that — and good emotional communication. They simply positively reinforce it. That program has led to about a half a standard deviation increase in children’s language development by the age of three.

Marginal cost, big impact. It has not been tested at scale. It would need to be … there’s science wonk stuff related to it. It’s not ready for prime time. But we’re closer to knowing how to do that than we were to get to the moon in the fifties. We need an R&D … an action oriented R&D initiative to take those best ideas, get them solid enough that they can be scaled and we would actually be able to not lose another generation of young poor kids.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that Al Gore wouldn’t consider this as important as the environment?

ABER: I … no. No, Al Gore actually worked all his life on something called Family Centered Community Building.


ABER: And Family Centered Community Building is very consistent with this approach. He was a champion of, of using science to address human development issues.

So, I’m not suggesting that he wouldn’t consider this as important. I am suggesting that he has cast his lot with something that it … that takes almost all his energy. And he’s not currently running for the Democratic nomination for President. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Yeah, but on the old principal that … two for one is a good idea. Need I say more?

ABER: Well, I, I think that a new … a Democratic President will have people of the caliber of a John Edwards who could become a Cabinet-level person working on poverty issues. Hillary Clinton or Al Gore (laughter) who could be major advisors and leaders on human development issues. Barack Obama, if Clinton wins … so I think there’s a lot of talent in the Party and in the nation to address these issues.

HEFFNER: We have one minute left. You’re convinced, I gather and it’s not quite a yes or no, but you’re convinced that the science is far enough for us now to take meaningful steps.

ABER: Yes.

HEFFNER: And you’d be happy with what you believe the results would be.

ABER: I would treat it kind of like the race to the moon. Which is that we should set a goal of equitable investments in the first four years of life. Equitable public investments. We should manage against that goal. There’s good scientific guidance about how to get started on that. We’d need an R&D, ongoing science effort. But we absolutely have enough to get started.

HEFFNER: Larry Aber with a plan like that, and the enthusiasm of scientists such as yourself, you’re right … all we do need now is the political leadership. Thank you for joining me today …

ABER: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: … on The Open Mind.

ABER: Truly my pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.