Making the Economic Case for Early Education

The key to the success of intensive early enrichment programs is that they have lasting effects on all the noncognitive skills that, acquired early enough, help lay the foundation for learning and achieving throughout life.
—James Heckman

For most advocates of early childhood education, providing disadvantaged kids with intellectual and emotional enrichment is simply a matter of fairness and social justice.

For James Heckman, it’s also sound economic policy.

Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor and a Nobel laureate, makes the economic case for early education. He argues that investing in programs for prekindergarten children will yield dramatic returns for individuals and for society. Early education, says Heckman, offers the most cost-effective path to a whole range of social benefits: not just higher future incomes for participants, but a more productive workforce, greater economic growth, lower crime rates, smaller prison populations, and substantial savings for taxpayers.

“This is more than just a feel-good topic. You can make a very powerful argument for early enrichment solely on the basis of hard-boiled cost-benefit analyses,” Heckman says. “This is the rare public policy initiative that promotes productivity in the economy at the same time that it appeals to fairness.”

Heckman’s case draws on new developments in neuroscience and developmental psychology. Recent research has shown that a child’s earliest years are vital to cognitive development; it is when they are most ready to acquire the basic skills that will provide the foundation for continued learning in years to come. But with the emphasis on K–12 education, researchers say, too many students from impoverished environments begin kindergarten already at a disadvantage when it comes to acquiring essential skills. Getting kids off to a good start, the argument goes, is more cost-effective than trying to play catch-up by providing them with remedial education later.

“If we invest in the very young,” Heckman explains, “we avoid the need for remediation in the first place.”

It is an argument that is attracting the attention of legislators, policy makers, and other leaders. Heckman’s work has been cited by everyone from then–Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain to New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to conservative columnist David Brooks. And when members of Congress gathered for a conference on early childhood development recently, they heard Heckman deliver the keynote address.

“We wouldn’t see this national movement, we wouldn’t have presidential candidates speaking about the issue, without Heckman’s work,” says Art Rolnick, senior vice-president and researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, who has written on the topic. “He has done the heavy lifting of analyzing the longitudinal studies and making the most convincing economic case.”

Heckman’s investigations of early childhood development were inspired in part by personal experience. Born in Chicago, he spent much of his childhood in the South, where he attended segregated schools and witnessed firsthand the effects of racial discrimination. Early in his career as an economist, he began studying ways to eliminate gaps in achievement that persisted along racial and ethnic lines. In one project, he analyzed the effectiveness of a job-training program for young adults in Texas. What he found only discouraged him. Efforts to educate or train young adults—whether through adult literacy programs, prison rehabilitation, or job training—too often turned out to be ineffective, because it was relatively more difficult for adult workers to learn new skills.

“These programs were based on the hope that society can solve eighteen years of neglect with a short-term intervention,” he says.

Instead, Heckman began examining the effects of intervening in early childhood. He found that addressing problems early was far more effective than trying to compensate later in life for early neglect. Experimental preschool interventions showed that children who were provided intensive early enrichment fared far better than others over the long term. One of the best-known interventions, the Perry Preschool Project, initiated for low-income African American families in Michigan in the mid-1960s, encouraged learning through playing, problem solving, and decision making. Evaluations of these programs, conducted over several decades, showed that participants went on to complete more schooling and earn more money than their peers and were far less likely to be arrested for violent crimes or to spend time in prison.

The key to the success of such programs, Heckman says, wasn’t so much that they raised IQs, but that they had lasting effects on the participants’ motivation, socialization, and self-control—all the noncognitive skills that, acquired early enough, help lay the foundation for learning and achieving throughout life.

Understanding and measuring the effects of such noncognitive skills remains a challenge, Heckman says; they are, after all, not as easily documented as such traditional, “hard” measures as achievement test scores. Working with researchers associated with the Pritzker Consortium on Early Childhood Development (based at the University’s Harris School) and from University College, Dublin, Heckman is helping to develop experimental interventions for preschool children in impoverished areas of Belfast. One of the chief aims of the project is to refine the ways researchers chart children’s improvements in noncognitive skills.

“A lot of public policy is based on measuring achievement test scores,” Heckman says. “But interventions work through other mechanisms—concerning motivation, social relationships, and self-discipline—that public policy has yet to come to grips with.”

Some of Heckman’s work touches on the most esoteric reaches of economic methodologies, but even there his work has provided economists with tools to address practical, applied problems. His 2000 Nobel Prize recognized his innovation in statistical techniques to correct selection bias—the problem that occurs when samples available to researchers don’t randomly represent real populations. His research has also included analyses of the forces that affect women’s decisions to enter the workforce; evaluation of social programs such as the Job Training Partnership Act; and investigations of the impact of civil rights and affirmative action programs.

“I think some of the best economics comes out of solving applied problems,” says Heckman. “People out there in society are asking us to solve big problems. That’s what we do. We are trying to answer one of the biggest questions there is: namely, how do people get to be the way they are?”

Heckman’s work at Chicago spans the Department of Economics, the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, and the College. He credits the University’s environment with fostering work that is at once intellectually rigorous and rooted in the problems of the wider world.

“There’s a tradition here of taking economics seriously as a field that can help solve real problems,” he says. “We challenge each other, we test ideas, we learn from each other, and that’s been very valuable.”