If we invest in the very young we avoid the need for remediation in the first place.”
—James Heckman
Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor, Nobel Laureate

For most advocates of early-childhood education, intellectual and emotional enrichment for disadvantaged kids is simply a matter of fairness. For James Heckman, it’s also sound economic policy.

Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor and a Nobel Laureate, argues that investing in early education 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.

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

Recent research has shown that a child’s earliest years are vital to acquisition of the basic cognitive skills that provide the foundation for continued learning in years to come. But, researchers say, too many students from impoverished environments now begin kindergarten already at a disadvantage when it comes to acquiring essential skills.

“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 leaders as varied as then-Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, conservative columnist David Brooks, and members of Congress.

Heckman spent much of his childhood in the South, where he attended segregated schools and witnessed firsthand the effects of racial discrimination. He began studying ways to eliminate gaps in achievement that persisted along racial and ethnic lines. In a project analyzing the effectiveness of a job-training program for young adults in Texas, he found that 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. Children in experimental preschool interventions that encouraged learning through playing, problem solving, and decision making fared far better than others over the long term. 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.

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

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 is 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.”

Originally published on February 18, 2008.