Blog: The Educated Reporter

Guest Post: Economist James Heckman on Long Dividends of Early Learning Investment

EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held at Stanford University, took place earlier this month. We asked some of the journalists attending to contribute posts from the sessions. The majority of the content will soon be available at EdMedia Commons. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of the posts. Independent education writer Maureen Kelleher is today’s guest blogger.

On May 2, Nobel-winning economist James Heckman gave an erudite, info-packed PowerPoint presentation during the National seminar of the Education Writers Association. It had a lot of ideas and a lot of charts. If you were there, you probably wondered how to bring it back to your K-12 or higher ed beat.

So let’s start with the basics. Who is this Heckman guy, and what’s his angle? James Heckman is a labor economist with a long history of studying education and job-training programs. His research shows, for example, that GED recipients’ wages are no better than high school dropouts’. In a 2004 book, Inequality in America, Heckman and co-author Alan B. Kreuger argue that skills are broader than intelligence, and both cognitive and noncognitive skills matter for socioeconomic success. After years of researching the negligible effects of GED and job-training programs on people’s wages and life outcomes, Heckman began to investigate the impact of early childhood programs, found them surprisingly effective and determined their greatest effects lie in noncognitive outcomes.  

Heckman’s presentation recapped these points and added emphasis on using skills acquisition as a strategy to reduce rising income inequality.

Here’s the short version of his argument: America is losing its middle class and producing fewer skilled workers than it was 30 to 40 years ago. Demand for skilled workers is increasing. Yet, while the number of college graduates is increasing, in the past 30 years the number of high school graduates has actually fallen. Meanwhile, policymakers are tackling fragmented aspects of the problem—crime, education and health—without embracing a more integrated strategy.

That strategy? “Invest in prevention, not remediation.” That means developing both cognitive and noncognitive skills, with strong emphasis on the earliest years. It also means greater attention to noncognitive skill development with older children and teenagers. While many experts think IQ is fixed by age eight, the brain’s prefrontal cortex—the source of noncognitive skills like judgment, prioritizing and focus—continues to mature into early adulthood. Children develop skills early in life, and their noncognitive skills—like persistence, focus and sociability—play a significant role in helping them learn. Skills beget skills, Heckman noted. A preschooler who can sit still, play nicely with others and enjoy new experiences has great advantages in learning compared to a youngster who can’t do those things.

Parents matter, Heckman observed, and they are under increasing strain, with growing income inequality and rising numbers of single-parent families. From birth through age five, families are the key resource to support children’s skill development. It is well known that children bring large differences in achievement with them to kindergarten—largely connected to how much vocabulary children have been exposed to and the health of their attachments to primary caregivers—and that schools generally do little to close the gaps.

Public policy needs to support struggling parents, Heckman argued. “Any good schools policy has to recognize we have troubled families in American society and we should support them,” he said. Providing interventions—he didn’t say it, but some likely examples would be home visiting or home-based Head Start—can help parents learn new ways of being with their children besides watching TV and issuing orders.

Having conversations with young children, playing with them, helping them plan and complete projects like baking or making crafts, reading to them, providing experiences like the zoo and museums—these are examples of parenting practices that make big differences in children’s school readiness and soft skills.

While college-educated mothers are spending more time with their children in these ways despite working in greater numbers, mothers from more disadvantaged backgrounds generally are not, Heckman told the crowd. During the Q & A session, he suggested that voluntary early childhood programs provided by a mix of public and private operators—basically, the current system—can help bridge the gap. But society needs to invest to get early childhood programs to the children who need them the most.

And now for the questions that likely are on your mind:

Where do you get the biggest return on investment? According to Heckman’s research, the earlier the better, going all the way back to prenatal supports.

Do we have enough research on preschool to justify a societal investment? Yes, says Heckman, even though not all preschool programs are as high quality as the ones with the biggest investment returns, like Perry Preschool and Chicago Child-Parent Centers. (For a cost-benefit analysis related to a less-expensive state preschool program, the proposed expansion of Michigan’s pre-K, click here.)

A targeted investment toward disadvantaged children is likely to have the most bang for the buck. “When preschool programs have been evaluated, the effects are biggest for the most disadvantaged” children, Heckman said. By contrast, preschool has negligible effects on middle-class kids. “A lot of those kids are already getting enriched early childhood environments.”

Don’t preschool’s effects just fade out by third grade?In the famous Perry preschool study, the cognitive effects of the program had essentially faded out by age 8. However, the noncognitive skill effects did not show evidence of fade-out and led to the improved life outcomes that generated so much social return on investment, like reduced criminal activity.

Heckman also raised two key points that can be hard for education reporters to keep in mind while wading through the politics and policy of K-12 and higher education:

1. Parents matter a lot—not only for supporting kids when they’re in school, but in getting their kids ready for school.

2. Success in life depends on a lot more than just how smart you are on a standardized test.