Early Childhood Education: Giving Kids a Fair Chance

7:40 PM

This has been my week for reading Nobel laureates. Today, I read James J. Heckman's Giving Kids a Fair Chance: A Strategy that Works.

Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, was a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2000.

While one might imagine complex formulas mathematical scenarios and unduly long phraseology from a Nobel Prize-winning economist writing about early-childhood interventions, in fact, Giving Kids a Fair Chance is not a difficult read. The slim volume is just 137 pages of content. The first 43 pages are from Professor Heckman, and the remainder include 10 replies to Heckman's work from various authorities, with Heckman having the concluding word. In fact, the work is eminently readable.

Heckman and his respondents are passionate about children. The respondents themselves read like a who's who among people concerned about children: Mike Rose, Robin West, Charles Murray, Carol S. Dweck, David Deming, Neal McCluskey, Annette Lareau, Lelac Almagor, Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse, and Geoffrey Canada.

James Heckman: Flickr/Instituto Ayrton Senna
Professor Heckman argues that spending on early childhood education has a high rate of return, and that a significant increase in spending on early childhood education would likely reap benefits that far exceed the costs. While they may differ in particulars, all but Charles Murray agreed with this conclusion. To be honest, the only respondent who caused a visceral response in me was Murray, author of The Bell Curve, whose Twitter profile reads: "Husband, father, social scientist, writer, libertarian. Or maybe right-wing ideologue, pseudoscientist, evil. Opinions differ." I will take him at his word on the former, but, while appreciating his humor, his writing gives ample evidence of the latter.

As a nation worried about the growing national debt, as we need to make difficult choices about priorities, scarce public resources invested in early childhood education will yield significant rewards. A mantra for Professor Heckman: "Skills beget skills and capabilities foster future capabilities" (32-33). In other words, skills acquired build on previous skills. Heckman also cites studies about what we already know: it costs less to get a second grader up to level than what it costs to bring an adult learner to his GED. Heckman, as an economist, is balancing "equity" and "efficiency" (34) and concludes that investment in early childhood reaps the greater reward.

I found Giving Kids A Fair Chance in the bibliography of Robert Putnam's Our Kids (see my commentary here). Like Putnam, Heckman and his contributors recognize that all children are "our kids." Geoffrey Canada summed up the challenge this way:
These children belong to all of us, but we are simply not acting that way. Once we accept that, we will have made the first step in changing the direction of their lives. (117)

You can follow Professor Heckman on Twitter at: @heckmanequation

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