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Wed November 28, 2012

How a Nobel Prize-winning economist became an advocate for preschool

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  James Heckman is one of the world’s most distinguished economists. He built his career studying the labor market. In 2000, he won the Nobel Prize.

But in recent years, Heckman has become famous for something else. He is now one of the country’s leading advocates for investments in early childhood education. Earlier this month, I had a chance to sit down with him to find out how an economist came to care about preschool.

We met at a church in Oak Park, Illinois where Heckman was giving a speech. The pulpit is a fitting place for James Heckman, because he has a gospel to share. It is a gospel of data.  

In the 1990s, Heckman came across some data that was disappointing. At the time, there was a lot of interest in genetics. There was new research showing that a person’s IQ was largely determined by genetics, and that IQ was by far the best predictor of how successful a person could be in life. Basically, people were stuck where they started out.

"So I got a little depressed by that," Heckman says. "And then I realized that you actually had – there was - evidence – scattered evidence … that suggested that if you started early enough, you could actually make a difference."

Heckman himself had proven that starting late was a bad idea. He’s a labor economist, so he looked at how job retraining programs helped give workers a boost in the market.  According to his research, they didn’t.

But then Heckman started looking at early education. He started researching a project that started in Ypsilanti in the 1960s. It was a famous project – you might have heard of it – called the Perry Preschool project. There were a lot of aspects to Perry, but one important thing to know is that all of the kids enrolled in the program were from high poverty homes. And, on one measure at least, the program was a failure.

"The kids were entered at age three and four," Heckman says. "By age 10, the IQs of the kids in the program are no smarter than those randomized out – no difference."

This supported the depressing research Heckman had come across in the 1990s. There was no benefit to IQ for the kids in Perry preschools.

"But yet, 40 years later, they have much greater social and economic participation," he says. "Higher earnings, the girls go to school much more, the boys are making money, they’re employed much more than the boys who weren’t in the program, much less crime."

So, Heckman, being an economist, did a benefit/cost calculation for the Perry Preschool project. He found that for every dollar invested:

"You are getting rates of return of somewhere between six to 10 percent per annum," he says. "On like a passbook savings account, that looks pretty good by current standards," 

Here was a clear conclusion, supported by data: preschool pays off.

But it still didn’t explain why preschool pays off.

For that, Heckman had to reject nearly half a century of conventional wisdom about education. He had to get over IQ.

"The so-called science of education in the 1960s was all based on cognitive psychology. And the measure of what schools created was IQ," Heckman says. "And so you say, ‘Okay, IQ is very important.’ And it is important. But what it also missed was there are all these other traits that somehow got lost."

These were the traits that were emphasized at the Perry Preschool project. Heckman says the Perry preschoolers planned out their activity for the day, they did the activity and then they reviewed the activity. It was an exercise of keeping kids on task, teaching them persistence and self-control.

"So it was teaching these social skills, some people say teaching character," Heckman says. "And that’s the hidden dimension of this program, which is totally ignored in the current public policy."

And that’s what Heckman is trying to change. He now leads a team of about 40 researchers and staff. He has a D.C. based public relations firm, paid for with private grant money.

All of it to investigate and spread – or even preach - the idea that preschool matters – not just to the children, but to our economy.

"Because there are huge economic returns," Heckman says. "And intellectually, it creates huge, very interesting problems for economists to solve. I mean, these are economic problems: skills. We’re talking about producing skills. Skills are the core of the modern economy."

Heckman says the earlier you start building those skills, the more return there is for society.

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