don’t judge an article by its title

One of the goals of applied child development research is to understand the impact of programs and services that serve children and families. Preschool is one of these hot-button programs that has gotten a lot of attention in the press recently. Preschool has been known to have many positive benefits for children (especially for children from low-income backgrounds), but many researchers and policymakers have been worried about recent findings that these positive effects don’t last, they fade over time.

The Research Article

Part of the reason we see this fade out effect, as a recent article points out, is that children from at-risk backgrounds who attend preschool programs tend to enter lower-performing elementary and middle schools; so all the gains they made during their preschool years are dampened by the stronger impact of being in a struggling school environment.

So then what, Bailey and colleagues asked, are the key features of these preschool programs that might encourage the positive impacts to last?

“We propose that to provide persistent intervention generated benefits for children, the skills, behaviors, capacities or beliefs targeted by interventions must share three key features: they are malleable through intervention, they are fundamental for success, and they would not develop eventually in most counterfactual conditions”

-Bailey, Duncan, Odgers, & Yu, 2017

The authors argue that in order for interventions to provide lasting benefits, they need to target skills that are (a) malleable through intervention, (b) fundamental for success, and (c) wouldn’t otherwise develop eventually in the average child. These skills are known as the “trifecta.”
The authors go through a laundry list of skills that don’t fit these criteria. For example, though basic reading and math skills might be malleable and fundamental, they typically develop in normative populations throughout the early years of schooling anyway, so simply targeting these skills wouldn’t generate lasting effects. The authors provide a short list of skills that they believe do fit into the “trifecta” – advanced math and literacy competency, and more complex skills like academic motivation, and implicit theories of intelligence are a few such skills.

“In short, early intervention impacts can be sustained only if they are followed by environments of sufficient quality to sustain normative growth.”

– Bailey, Duncan, Odgers, & Yu, 2017

The article goes on about the important qualities that need to be present when creating intervention programs. The timing of the program should be carefully thought out, the quality of the post-intervention environment needs to be considered, and the skills that are directly being targeted by the intervention warrants special attention.
If you’ve got the time, it’s a great article and worth a careful read. But, providing this brief summary is not the only thing I wanted to talk about – what happened after this article was published demonstrates the arc of research and the relationship it has with the press.
The Opinion Piece
The authors of the original article took it upon themselves to write their own opinion piece in the Washington Post. If you’re thinking this is rather strange…you’d be right. Usually, authors don’t publish their own editorials on work they published. Usually an outside reporter who notices a piece of research, interviews the authors, and writes about it. But OK, maybe us researchers should do more self-promotion in order to get the right message out…we’ll take it…so here’s what happened.
The opinion piece starts off harshly criticizing the existing preschool programs that we have studied for decades. It points to how these programs target skills that would have developed anyway, and their fruitless attempts to close the gap between low- and high-income children can be attributed to these misguided aims.
“Unfortunately, our investments in many early-childhood programs may be based on an inflated sense of their promise. Even our best efforts often produce only ephemeral gains.”
Washington Post Opinion Piece
It’s not until nearly the end of the opinion piece that the authors really get at the heart of their original argument from the research paper: that addressing more complex issues, such as children’s beliefs about about their learning potential, in preschool programs might be more successful at causing lasting effects.
At the very end of the opinion piece, the authors finally get to the trifecta of skills that are important for sustaining positive effects. This means readers must read until the very end of the article in order to notice the positive spin the piece has. This somewhat backwards way of approaching a news piece might suggest why academics and scholars aren’t typically the ones writing their own opinion pieces…
The Today Show
This opinion piece stirred up the community and quickly caught the attention of the morning Today show, which did a 2-minute segment on the editorial. The segment quickly overviews the article and opinion piece; it starts off pretty negative toward preschool and its effects, and ends with a rather confusing message – maybe preschool is worth it, maybe it isn’t?
The Response 
And just a short week after the opinion piece was published, a rebuttal argued that maybe the authors were a little hasty in their original message and should exercise caution next time they decide to write about their own work. Prominent researchers point to the notable positive effects of Head Start and the importance of program quality.
“The gains from pre-kindergarten intervention may fade, but the harms from stereotyping do not.”
– Patrick Driessen
All this is to say that in the age where we should be trying to teach students how to be intelligent consumers of science, we should point out how our words, no matter how well-intentioned, can snowball down a potentially harmful path. Without careful deliberation over the message we are trying to convey, and a responsible assessment of the potential impact it could have, our message could come across quite differently than originally intentioned.  This is just an example of how one published article and subsequent opinion piece can have the potential to lead our community down an unintentional but damaging path.

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