Preschool: The Best Job-Training Program : Planet Money If you want adults to have jobs, the best time to train them is when they're 3 years old, an economist says.

Preschool: The Best Job-Training Program

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


Over the past few months, we've brought you stories of babies and childrearing for our series Beginnings. Well, today, an ending. We conclude our series with two stories about early childhood education told by two reporters with a vested interest in the subject.

NORRIS: But first, here's Alex Blumberg on why preschool matters.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Let's start with a mystery - a mystery James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, discovered when he studied job training programs targeted at low-skill, low-education young workers. Heckman compared a group of these workers that had gone through a training program with a group that hadn't.

D: I mean for boys, they would have been better off if they hadn't gone into the program. And for many other groups the effects were basically zero.

BLUMBERG: So these programs were supposed to train you in a new skill that would enable you to get a better job. And when you looked at them, they didn't do that. And in some cases, they actually made you worse off?

HECKMAN: They harmed people, correct.

BLUMBERG: And Heckman discovered, these soft skills, which are so important in getting a job, you don't get them in high school, not in middle school, not even in elementary school. You get them here.

JULIAN THOMSON HARRIS: I love trains. That's why I'm going to make trains.

BLUMBERG: You're going to make a train?


BLUMBERG: Preschool, James Heckman found, might be one of the most effective job-training programs out there. One piece of evidence he looked at, a study called the Perry Preschool Project.

HECKMAN: In the early '60s, some very visionary individuals conducted a social experiment.

BLUMBERG: Then, both groups went back into the same regular Ypsilanti public school system, grew up side by side into adulthood. But when researchers followed up with the kids as adults, they found huge differences. For example, at age 27, the boys in what Heckman calls the control group - the ones who didn't go to preschool - got arrested a lot; more than two times each. But in the preschool group, what Heckman calls the treatment group?

HECKMAN: In the treatment group that was cut in half.


HECKMAN: You look at monthly earnings on the job, the control group is earning about two-thirds of what the treatment group is earning.

BLUMBERG: So these kids who - over 20 years ago - got two hours a day of preschool, decades later they were half as likely to be arrested, earned 50 percent more in salary. And that wasn't all, girls who got preschool, when they get to age 27, were 50 percent more likely have a savings account, twenty percent more likely to have a car. Preschool kids got sick less often, were unemployed less often, went to jail less often. Lots of other studies have had similar findings.

W: Do you come here every day?


BLUMBERG: And when you come here, what do you do?

CAMERON: I don't know. I just don't know.

BLUMBERG: Ella's teacher, Eliza Cutler, was better able to explain what exactly that is.

ELIZA CUTLER: They kind of - they play in the morning and then we'll sit down and have like a morning meeting, just having general conversation about what we might do during the day. Then we play outside. And then they take a little nap.


BLUMBERG: There's painting, building with blocks. If you didn't know where to look, you wouldn't see all the job skills being formed.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm using that one.

CHILD: (unintelligible)

CHILD: Not even, I can't have just one?

BLUMBERG: If they learn these skills now, they'll have them for the rest of their lives. But research shows if they don't form these skills now, it becomes harder and harder the older they get. By the time the time they're in a job training program in their 20s, it's often too late.

NORRIS: For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg.

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