David Figlio's Research Finds Infant Health Has Long-Term Impact on Education

David Figlio's Research Finds Infant Health Has Long-Term Impact on Education

infant health

In a recently published study, professor David Figlio and his colleagues discovered that poor infant health, as indicated by low birth weight, reduces a child’s educational attainment. When the researchers compared the progress from birth through middle school of 1.3 million children, including 14,000 twin pairs, they found that low birth weight had a consistent impact.

"Efforts to improve educational attainment need to begin before birth," says Figlio. "There are considerable social disparities in neonatal health, so many children from disadvantaged backgrounds start life with a double disadvantage."

The effect of poor infant health on later education outcomes occurred across a wide range of family and educational backgrounds. Results were similar despite variations in school quality, ethnic and racial background and parental education. 

Figlio conducted this research with Jonathan Guryan, associate professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy; Krzysztof Karbownik, a visiting scholar at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research; and Jeffrey Roth, research professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida.

Their study offers further evidence that effects of health on adult outcomes are established very early. “These results suggest that the gaps observed in adulthood associated with poor neonatal health are largely fixed at least by third grade or even kindergarten,” the authors say.

This research makes use of a new data resource — merged birth and school records for all children born in Florida from 1992 to 2002 — to study the effects of birth weight on cognitive development from kindergarten through schooling. This new data source helped the researchers to fill in gaps in existing knowledge about how poor neonatal health affects cognitive development and adult outcomes.

Results from the twin studies are markedly consistent. “Twins with higher birth weights enter school with a cognitive advantage that appears to remain stable through the elementary and middle school years,” according to the authors.

Although the study indicates the influence of biology, it also suggests the influence that environment has as well. The study found that children with poor infant health who come from highly educated families perform much better academically than children with good infant health from poorly educated families.

At Northwestern University, Figlio is the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy, director of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, and professor of Human Development and Social Policy. He is also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and an associate of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Figlio’s research on education and social policy, including influential work on school accountability, standards, welfare policy, and policy design, has been published in numerous leading journals and funded by major foundations and agencies. He has served on numerous national education task forces and panels, and has advised several U.S. states and nations on five continents on the design, implementation and evaluation of education policy.

The researchers’ recent working paper, “The Effects of Poor Neonatal Health on Cognitive Development,” is available here.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 9/18/14