Harris School, Economics graduate students organize conference on early childhood
On April 20 and 21, leading thinkers on early childhood development gathered at the University of Chicago to discuss a wide range of current research and its global implications, a culmination of two years of work by a group of driven UChicago graduate students.
An inspiration for the event’s content came from a yearlong series of workshops led by Nobel laureate James Heckman, who has pioneered the economic study of issues in early childhood development. Those discussions led the students to assemble a program that broke new ground in the field, Heckman said.
“The work on less-developed countries and the work on developed countries was laid side-by-side and we discussed for the first time what the relative priorities should be for different strategies for human development,” said Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Economics, the College, and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, and director of the Center for Social Program Evaluation.
“It was rewarding for me to help guide the students’ study of this complex subject and then to see them make a real contribution,” Heckman said.
The conference, “Investing in Early Childhood: A Global Perspective on the Interplay Between Family and Interventions,” began as an informal exchange of ideas among eight graduate students from the Chicago Harris and the Department of Economics interested in early childhood development in developing countries, said Arianna Zanolini, a PhD student at Chicago Harris.
“There is obviously a lot of research on early childhood development going on at Chicago Harris and in economics, but there wasn’t really anyone focusing on developing countries,” said Zanolini. “We found ourselves having a lot of informal exchanges about the topic over coffee or after a workshop and decided to capitalize on our common interests in a more formal way.”
Their first step was to create the Chicago Initiative for Economic Development and Early Childhood in 2010, which includes affiliated scholars and students interested in the topic, with a mission to build bridges among leading scholars and policymakers on state-of-the-art early childhood research for developing countries. The students and others attended the initiative's workshops led by Heckman, hosting guest speakers to present their research.
“In those discussions, we realized the best thing to do was to bring all of these people and perspectives together so we could have a joint conversation about what we know, what we understand, and what we need to do going forward,” said Chicago Harris PhD student Javaeria Qureshi.
The students planned a comprehensive conference to focus on ways to integrate the role of the family in child development with the role of early childhood intervention through public policy to improve the well being of children around the world.
“The conference showed how economics, biology, epidemiology, and other approaches could be synthesized in a way that was brand new for a lot of people in the room,” said Heckman.
The conference also hosted lively policy discussions on what should be the role of Early Childhood Policies and how they should look. According to Zanolini and Qureshi, most of the speakers agreed that when it comes to early childhood development between the ages of 0-3 years old, parenting is much more key than any influence outside the home. And although policymakers have identified that particular age range as a key developmental period, they have found that intervening with center-based programs such as daycare in that very early age range is not effective if it does not involve the family. Yet, parenting programs are in the early stages of development and there is still a lot of uncertainty related to their effectiveness.
“While parenting seems to matter a lot more than out-of-home levers, the catch is that we as policymakers don’t have a lot of influence on what happens in the home and we have the greatest control over out-of-home factors,” said Qureshi.
Speakers at the conference included Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a developmental psychologist at Columbia University specializing in policy research on family and community influences on childhood development; Paul Gertler, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, and former chief economist at the World Bank Human Development Network, who pioneered impact evaluations of social programs in developing countries; and Norbert Schady, an economist at the Inter-American Development Bank who works on early childhood development programs in Latin America. The conference also included a range of academics and policy makers involved in early childhood research and implementation.
“The students really cast a wide net in terms of who they wanted to include in the program,” said Chicago Harris professor Ariel Kalil, whose Center for Human Potential and Public Policy helped organize the Chicago Initiative for Economic Development and Early Childhood conference.
“It was really driven very much by their ideas. There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm. It is such a great example for other PhD students of the sort of things that are possible at the Harris School and at the University of Chicago.”
Funding for the conference was provided by the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy, the Economics Research Center, the Population Research Center at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), The JB & MK Pritzker Family Foundation and the Robert T. Michael Research Prize at the University of Chicago. The Chicago Initiative for Economic Development and Early Childhood group includes PhD students Pedro Bernal, Pietro Biroli, Elise Chor, Ana Sofia Leon, Javaeria Qureshi, Maria Fernanda Rosales, and Arianna Zanolini.
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