Scholar: Early Education Makes All The Difference
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, the latest in our summer series about current ideas and trends in education. In recent weeks, we've talked about the value of vocational training, the debate over charter schools and financial incentives for students. In a few minutes, we'll find out about how the new GI Bill could change the lives of thousands of recent veterans. And we'll get some new data about the charter versus traditional public school debate in Washington, D.C. How did the two types of schools match up in the latest standardized tests?
But first, we want to talk about the debate over the importance of learning before children even get to the classroom. In the Fall, Congress is set to debate a range of legislative proposals designed to bolster learning among very young children. Today, we're speaking with one of the nation's leading proponents of early childhood education, Nobel Prize winner James Heckman. He's a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and has written extensively about the benefits of early childhood development. He joins us now from Chicago. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
Professor JAMES HECKMAN (University of Chicago): Pleasure to be with you.
MARTIN: I hope the question doesn't bore you. But there are…
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: …many people who will wonder why and how an economist got interested in early childhood education.
Prof. HECKMAN: If you start looking at how human beings develop and diverge and you start realizing how poverty really gets created and you start tracing the origins of poverty back, it's hard not to go back, back, back to the earliest years in the lives of people. And as a result of a series of studies over my whole lifetime, actually, I found that the effectiveness of early intervention is much, much higher than many of the interventions that American society has traditionally adopted to try to remediate, to patch up, to fix the problems that arise from disadvantaged environments.
MARTIN: When you are talking about early interventions, what are you talking about?
Prof. HECKMAN: Well, the family plays a fundamental role, we know, in shaping the lives of children. But in addition, we know that even before the children are born, the conditions, the way the mother takes care of herself has strong dramatic impact on the well-being of the child. And we know that the family in support of the child, whether it's in preschool or in school, plays a critical role. And I think anybody who looks at the statistics of American family life has to recognize that it's in trouble. We've had serious decline in the quality of many, many American families over the years. And we know that that creates situations of risk and disadvantage for the children born into those families.
MARTIN: What role do you think race plays in this conversation?
Prof. HECKMAN: Well, I think there's no denying that race is a factor in terms of American family life. In terms of disadvantage, if you were to chart families just by the pure category of race, you would find that African-American families are typically much more disadvantaged and it isn't just in terms of family income but it's also in terms of parenting and in terms of many other aspects of the environment which shape the lives of children. Having said that though, what we can learn from the African-American family is also very interesting. Because even in the face of severe disadvantage, what we can find is many success stories. And the success stories tell you something about human development, which we typically ignore in public policy.
That it isn't just a matter of income and it isn't just a matter of the education of the mother. But it's a matter of parenting and motivating the child. And so you see here in Chicago, in some of the worst projects, over the years, we've studied some very successful people who emerged from those environments, simply because their parents or in some cases just the mother have been so effective.
MARTIN: You talked about, in your autobiography, in connection with the - your Nobel Prize, the impression that travel in the Deep South made upon you in the '50s at a time when it was of course still quite segregated. And I was just curious if you ever reflect on those days and what you saw then and…
Prof. HECKMAN: Oh, I do…
MARTIN: …the trajectory you think we're making now. Sure.
Prof. HECKMAN: See, to me, the most interesting thing in all this, and it's not just true about the situation with race but its particularly true with race, is how rapidly certain quote "assumed values, traditional values" have evaporated. When my parents moved down to Lexington, Kentucky, 50 years ago or so, some of the local neighbors came up to us and said, well, you're from Chicago. And in Chicago, we know, you have a certain way about race and how they treat people. But we want to introduce you to the Southern way. And then we got a lecture.
I remember sitting there on my father's couch or my mother's couch, listening to this lecture about how there were two groups and we had to be separated. We've come a long way from this kind of open racism. And I think it's wonderful. So I think back about how dramatic social change can be. We've seen just in my own lifetime, dramatic changes and I think dramatic improvements and acceptance of individuals in ways that I think were incomprehensible 50 years ago.
MARTIN: And finally, bringing it back to the subject of our conversation today, there is still, as we know, a lot of inequality in educational resources and what kids are exposed to. Do you envision, given all that we've seen with race in this country, do you envision a time when we won't be having these conversations about educational disparities?
Prof. HECKMAN: It'll be a bit in the distant future. I think partly because of the resources of the larger society are strapped, partly because in the past, we've committed so many resources to other activities, not recognizing the value of education. I think it's not just a matter of race. I think race is very important. I think generally speaking, we've to face the general problem, which is that we are seeing more children coming out of families which simply don't give them adequate resources for their development. So we have really two Americas, you know, the - you can think of two Americas going side by side, living next to each other, even driving on the same roads.
But on the one hand, we see a group of people who are essentially doing better than ever before, in the sense we have more people graduating from college, more people who are going into situations of advantage, going into the larger society, never mind the current economic downturn. At the same time, properly measured, the U.S. high school dropout rate is increasing. And it's not just for African-Americans, it's true for Americans of all ethnic background. And we have to understand that what's happening then is we're creating two different cultures, two different societies. The level of inequality is actually increasing at a fundamental level.
And it's this inequality in early conditions which perpetuates inequality into the next generation and the generation after that. So I think that American society - I think the current emphasis in the Obama administration towards the long run, which I dearly hope President Obama continues to emphasize, is a very important one. Because in the long run, when we really understand how to solve the problem of poverty, we're going to understand that disadvantage in the early years and disadvantage through childhood is increasingly playing a role in producing the two societies that America is becoming.
MARTIN: James Heckman is the Henri Schultz distinguished service professor of economics at the University of Chicago, a Nobel Memorial Prize winner in economics. He's an expert in the economics of human development. And he was kind enough to join us from Chicago. Thank you so much for joining us.
Prof. HECKMAN: Thank you.
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