The Overlooked Factors That Shape Our Success Smarts matter. But other factors may play an even bigger role in whether someone succeeds. This week, we speak with Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman about the skills that predict how you'll fare in life. We'll also look at programs that build these skills in the neediest of children – and new research that suggests the benefits of investing in kids and families can last for generations.
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What's Not On The Test: The Overlooked Factors That Determine Success

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What's Not On The Test: The Overlooked Factors That Determine Success

What's Not On The Test: The Overlooked Factors That Determine Success

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the early 1990s, Jim Heckman traveled to Corpus Christi, Texas. He was there to see something that had been described to him as a miracle. It was a program for students who had dropped out of high school.

JAMES HECKMAN: And they said, you know, we have a program which will take high school dropouts, people who had dropped out in ninth grade or before, actually, and converted them into high school graduates within two to three months in our program. And then we send them out to the workplace. So I said, well, this is amazing.

VEDANTAM: The program that gave young people a second chance is now known widely across the country. It's called the GED.

HECKMAN: Which was a program which students studied for, a test. And at the end of the test, they were certified as legitimate high school graduates.

VEDANTAM: Jim is an economist, and he wanted to know whether people with a GED were as successful as people with a high school diploma. He started by looking at their test scores.

HECKMAN: What really surprised me was their test scores were virtually the same.

VEDANTAM: Within a few months, the GED program was allowing students to catch up with peers who had spent years in high school. But then Jim looked further. Were GED grads holding onto jobs and long-term relationships, staying out of trouble?

HECKMAN: If you looked at the GEDs, you realized they weren't doing so well. These were people who had dropped out of school in the first place. They were likely - it turned out - if they got a job, to quit the job or be fired. If they went into marriage or some partnership, how stable were those compared to the ordinary high school graduate? Much less stable. What about their crime? Much more likely to commit crime.

VEDANTAM: What was going on? Why were GED recipients struggling if they had the same test scores as high school graduates?

HECKMAN: It was kind of a revealing insight that these people were as smart as high school graduates measured by the kind of test that so much public policy focuses on. But in real life, they were really not succeeding in any real way.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, untangling the mystery Jim Heckman discovered in Corpus Christi and the astounding implications his findings have for public policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: James Heckman is a professor at the University of Chicago. In 2000, he won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Some of his early work focused on programs like the GED that are designed to give young people a second chance. Jim found that these programs were succeeding in getting young people to do well in tests but failing when it came to improving their outcomes in life. It prompted him to ask broader questions about the American educational system.

HECKMAN: I realized that the whole educational establishment, at least the establishment that looked at test scores and that valued schools and valued people by these test scores, really was just missing important dimensions of human behavior. And so that brought me onto a subject which has fascinated me and which I think is really important for success and understanding success and failure, and that is the notion of what I called noncognitive skills. By noncognitive skills, I meant skills that weren't measured by these tests. And what I found and that surprised me was that those noncognitive skills were extremely important.

And then when you think about it, you say, well, what an idiot. Of course these are important. You know, and then you go back to everything you ever heard from the time you were a child - the Aesop's fables, the tortoise and the hare and, you know, Teddy Roosevelt saying, you know, it's the man of grit and the person who would go down who gets back up again and tries and, you know, all of the mottoes we quote to our children and that many presidents and leaders have told us for centuries. I mean, it's in many religious teachings.

So I said, you know, this is obviously true. But it turned out that in psychology at that time, there was a sense that somehow personality and the subject of personality was kind of, you know, a dark and unrigorous corner, whereas the IQ test, there we actually had machinery to measure it. We had ways to score tests and so forth and so on. So what I did then is that started a lifetime investigation on these social and emotional skills. The GEDs are very deficient in those. Now that we have good measures of those, we see that they're far worse than the high school graduates. And there's evidence, by the way, that staying in school, that working through will build those skills.

VEDANTAM: Jim says there is another word for these skills - character.

HECKMAN: One time in American education - I mean, I'm talking a long time ago, when Horace Mann was devising the first common schools for all Americans - character training was literally part of the curriculum. I think Horace Mann has a quote in the 1840s when he was setting up this movement. And basically, he said something which says it all, really, you know, that reading, writing and arithmetic is but a small portion of what we teach in school.

And then he goes on to say that what we're really teaching is character. We're teaching children how to stay on task, to control their emotions, to work with others, to persist. And so this whole bundle of attributes we know are important in life and the common school was designed basically to foster all of those.

VEDANTAM: A clear example of character education was the hugely popular textbook series called McGuffey Readers. You'd find them in many classrooms between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century. The textbooks were filled with stories about how to live a virtuous life. This one is about a hen who works hard to take care of her 12 chicks. She asks them to follow her as she jumps across a brook to a stone. But they don't obey.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Oh, mother, we can't, we can't, we can't, said all the little chickens. Yes, you can, if you try, said the old hen. Just flap your wings as I did, and you can jump over.

VEDANTAM: Only one of the chickens, Chippy, even tries.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) When they got home, the old hen began to look about for something to eat. She soon found near the back door a piece of bread. So she called the chickens, and they all ran up to her, each one trying to get a bite at the piece of bread. No, no, said the old hen. This bread is for Chippy. He is the only one of my children that really tried to jump to the stone.

HECKMAN: One of the most interesting is a story about a couple of boys who ran away from school, played hooky, stole a boat. And then the ocean came up, and they were nearly drowned. And finally, by the grace of God, they were thrown onto the beach and saved. And they learned their lesson, and they never ran away from school again. And they did their lessons. So there were a lot of stories like that.

Unfortunately, from the standpoint of some elements of society - and I really mean it was unfortunate - those early lessons were more or less using the Bible, the Protestant Bible, as the touchstone to teach morality and character. And then, of course, other groups, as they came to the United States - more Catholics, for example, Jews and other groups - as they came, they found this very offensive. They didn't want to get their children indoctrinated. And so that aspect of character gradually got edited out of the common school.

And then psychology meanwhile had this, quote, "development," this great breakthrough that was really cognitive psychology that really said IQ and, you know, cognition and pure problem-solving ability, that was really the be-all and end-all of an education and that we shouldn't worry about this touchy-feely stuff - you know, building Americans, learning to work with others, understanding democracy. All of that was viewed as junk.

And it really hit the trash can in the late '50s when Sputnik surprised Americans. And literally, if you read the education journals of the time, what really was needed was, you know, get your math right. Get your science right. And the rest of it was kind of taken for granted.

VEDANTAM: So this is fascinating because what you're pointing out is that for a long time, the link between character and what was taught in school had a religious component to it. And as the country became perhaps more secular or more diverse, people had some resistance to bringing those religious ideas along. But of course, you don't need religion to teach questions related to character. Modern psychology has done a lot of thinking about some of these traits. What traits are we talking about when we use the term character? What kind of traits are these?

HECKMAN: Well, there's a range of traits. What I mean is the ability to plan. How well can I actually plan my life forward, make good use of time? How well can I persist on a task, and how resilient am I? If I experience failure, how far can I go and bounce back and try, try again? How open am I to experience? So in other words, am I closed off? Do I sort of shun contact with new ideas and with new people? How agreeable am I in the sense of, you know, I may find somebody disagrees with me, but that doesn't mean I have to fight them? There's a sense of having a sense of propriety about the relationship. So this term character is a quite broad term, really, very elastic in some ways.

VEDANTAM: One of the most important qualities that Jim identified is conscientiousness, or what the psychologist Angela Duckworth calls grit. Jim also found that the ability to delay gratification matters a lot.

HECKMAN: In other words, I can see a gain. If I wait today, like, go to school - it's unpleasant; I don't like the teacher; I don't like studying. But I know that if I finish these two years, I will have much better opportunity in life. So I control myself and stay in school. You know, I grin and bear it, I guess is the way to describe it. So I think it's this ability to manage yourself and to work with others. It's both.

VEDANTAM: Do you think this is true for even Nobel Prize winners? I mean, when you look at your own life and career, do you see sort of the role of character, of perseverance and conscientiousness and grit, as in some ways being just as important or perhaps more important than cognitive and intellectual abilities?

HECKMAN: Oh, for sure. And the reason why I say for sure is take some truly important scientist like Marie Curie. You know, her work, for example, in isolating radium, taking pitchblende or distilling it in the back of some sheds in Paris back more than 100 years ago, that was just brutal grunt work. She had an idea, for sure, but it required that she stay with it and stay with it for years. Take all of the rocket scientists - many failures to, say, get a satellite into orbit or to get a rocket to fly. I think in every case, especially in science but especially in learning, literally, you have to stay with it. And it's one of the loneliest things in the world, original research.

Bertrand Russell, in his autobiography, has a great line. He was a very young man, a brilliant guy, a acknowledged genius. And he described how every morning he would go to his desk, and there was a sheet of paper. And he was trying to prove something. It turned out what he was really trying to prove was impossible, so the story is even better in that regard.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

HECKMAN: But he went there. And he said he would look at this paper all day. And then he would go home or go back to his bed and sleep without having written a line on it. And he did this for weeks, sometimes months, because he was waiting for a breakthrough. His mind was working, but he couldn't write anything down.

So it really is a question of staying with it. And that's why, you know, Einstein said it. Edison said it. You know, genius is, like, 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I mean, there are some people who strike it rich. I mean, you fall down. And you see, oh, my God. I stubbed my toe on a piece of gold, and it goes down one mile. And you're rich or something.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

HECKMAN: But that's pretty unusual. Pretty unusual.

VEDANTAM: You know, we had Angela Duckworth on HIDDEN BRAIN maybe a year or two ago. And she told me something really interesting during that conversation. She brought up something the German philosopher Nietzsche had said about how we all, in some ways, want to believe that genius and talent essentially spring out of nowhere, spring out of the soil.

And he apparently said, the performer has an incentive to want to suggest that, you know, his or her genius was natural, that it just was - it required no effort because it makes the performer look good. But he had an important insight about the audience, that the audience also in some ways wants to believe that grit and hard work and perseverance were not necessary because what the audience wants to say is that the person who is playing this piano so beautifully before me, this person just has a gift. And I can't play the piano that well because I just don't have the same gift.

And so seeing things as natural in some ways relieves us of the obligation or the hope or the possibility that we might be able to match that performance. And so there's almost a conspiracy in society to believe that good outcomes come naturally as opposed through - you know, through conscientiousness, persistence and hard work.

HECKMAN: I'll add to that story, a true story. In Los Alamos during the Second World War, when these brilliant physicists were all trying to develop the atom bomb and develop atomic energy and make it usable for military purposes - many brilliant people, and they were in these laboratories working. But apparently - and I know this - I had a high school teacher who was part of that group for a while. And he told me that everybody, in the course of the day, they would sit around and play volleyball.

And they would appear to be just naturally just very bright. And papers would show up, and calculations would get done. And then he said, if you went there at night, you'd realize in every office people were staying up all night doing the work. But they didn't want to admit how hard they were working to anybody else.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

Even if some people want to project the image that their achievements come naturally, Jim says it's clear that conscientiousness and other character skills play a huge role in success. That's true whether we're talking about a scientist in Los Alamos or a recent high school graduate. When we come back, how to develop these skills in the neediest kids and the extraordinary effect this can have on their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: In 1963, Louise Derman-Sparks got her first job as a teacher at the Perry Preschool Project. It served disadvantaged African American kids in Ypsilanti, Mich.

LOUISE DERMAN-SPARKS: I was - what? - 23, (laughter) 24. It's hard to imagine now. I'm 79 now, so it was a while ago.

VEDANTAM: Her lessons with the preschoolers appeared simple, but they usually had a hidden curriculum. Louise encouraged the kids to develop what we'd now call noncognitive skills. She gives an example of something called dramatic play. The kids would dress up and perform.

DERMAN-SPARKS: I would take a role and help the kids expand their play, not by telling them what to do, letting the kids create the script. But I would make certain demands where they would have to respond. If I was the storekeeper, they would bring me something. And I might say, well, did you see how much this cost? And then I'd think, well, who's in your family, and what kinds of foods might they need to eat?

VEDANTAM: By adding up the cost of items in the pretend store, the kids learned arithmetic. But they also learned other things.

DERMAN-SPARKS: Planning skills, expanding their awareness of the world. We felt that communication and developing and expanding language was really important for the kids because it's important in society, and it's very important in order to be successful in school.

VEDANTAM: She often moved learning experiences outside of the classroom.

DERMAN-SPARKS: Frankly, we used to just put them in our cars.

VEDANTAM: The teachers took the students around the community to a bakery, an orchard, the airport.

DERMAN-SPARKS: That was always a favorite trip. They were fascinated, of course, by the - you know, watching the planes take off and come down. And those were days where you could actually go in - right into the takeoff areas, departure areas.

We wanted to expand their world experience because the families were very poor, and most of them didn't even have their own cars. So the kids were really restricted to a pretty small physical area. What we wanted to do was for them to be able to have the concrete experiences in the world that children from middle-class homes had and to learn to be comfortable in these larger arenas of the world - of their world.

VEDANTAM: Jim Heckman says the program was a creation of a group of educators connected with the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University.

HECKMAN: They were trying to think of how they could improve the lives of those children starting from a very early age. So they operated on the belief that early investments, early environments, played a tremendous role. And the initial program was designed to boost the IQ of disadvantaged children.

VEDANTAM: One thing that made the program unusual was that families were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first got the intervention. The second was a control group. When the results started rolling in after a few years, they were initially disappointing. By the time children were 10, there wasn't much of a difference in how children in the two groups performed on tests of cognitive ability.

HECKMAN: And it led a lot of people at the time to conclude that the program was a failure, and it was a failure because it had not boosted IQ. And that program was launched in the 1960s at a time when IQ was considered the be-all and end-all of life success.

VEDANTAM: Partly because the study was conducted so long ago, researchers have been able to follow the kids who went through the Perry Preschool Program for a very, very long period of time. What have you and others found when you look at the kids who went through the Perry Preschool Program in terms of their life outcomes?

HECKMAN: Well, that's the interesting part. They were much more likely to kind of be cooperative, much more likely to engage in school - and then going forward, much more likely to graduate high school, much more likely to make earnings, much more likely to go on to college, much less likely to commit crime. And so when you started following people into the 20s and into the 30s, you saw substantial benefits that came from this program.

And that, by the way, has an important lesson. I mean, the lesson is that if you start doing interventions and then evaluate them within a few years and not recognize that these programs have multiple effects, and you don't allow those effects to kind of generate and express themselves, we can reach very premature negative conclusions.

VEDANTAM: In some ways, this sounds like you're going back to the soft-skill story we talked about in our - the first part of our conversation, that those were the factors that were driving these outcomes.

HECKMAN: Exactly. See, in some sense it was a total confirmation of what we'd also seen in the GED work, that it's these social and emotional skills that, A, are malleable - much more malleable than we used to think; B, can be measured; and, C, are very powerful in producing life outcomes. So in that sense, I think, the two lines of research come together beautifully.

VEDANTAM: One of the things that has excited a lot of people about the Perry Preschool program and programs like it is what you mentioned a second ago, that the skills that are important in driving life outcomes are not just - you know, it's not just enough to say that they're character skills or they involve these different traits but that these traits actually might be malleable, that actually we can do something to change them - that in some way instead of thinking of them just as traits, it might actually be useful to think of them as skills, skills that can be taught, skills that can be learned. And that's a remarkably hopeful message in terms of thinking about ways we can improve the life outcomes of lots of people.

HECKMAN: I agree. In fact, even in this conversation, we were talking about traits. I increasingly use the word skills because skills can be changed. That would be true both for IQ and for personality traits. We understand much more now. IQ gets to be fairly stable by around age 10. If you start early enough, like at birth, you can actually boost IQ even. But IQ tends to be fixed at least in terms of your rank and the IQ distribution by somewhere, 10 to 12 - you know, varies among people. But then it becomes much harder to change it.

However, personality traits are actually emerging. And so if you look at the work on neuroscience, you look at the work on behavioral science, many, many excellent behavioral people, they're showing that many more what we can think of as personality and character traits emerge as people get older.

VEDANTAM: What exactly did the Perry Preschool program do to boost these character traits, these character skills?

HECKMAN: Well, it's interesting. If you study it, two things that I think were really important - the program lasted two years during the regular school year. These kids are 3 and 4. And they came in for 2 1/2 hours a day. The curriculum was very easy to describe. They basically - they planned tasks, they executed tasks, and then they reviewed the tasks collectively. So it had many aspects where kids were picking a project, staying with it and finishing a project. Project could be building a small wooden boat or maybe painting a picture and then evaluating each other's work - working together. So it had this social interaction on top of the activities.

And so the kid each week, each day for five days a week for about 39 weeks a year, two years in a row, they would start doing these projects. They would stay on those tasks, and they would review the tasks. And then they would go back home and maybe even bring the art back home. So that was part of it.

But another component sometimes gets lost. It wasn't just that the program operated with the kids. It also visited the parents. It tried to build the parents' engagement, the parent with the child. And that was really important because a lot of parents then and even now don't understand how important they are in stimulating, motivating, cultivating the child and getting the child to stay on task and, you know, learn. And so the parents themselves got galvanized and worked with the child. So the child and a visitor - a person from the child care center would go home and work with a parent.

So you had two things going on - the child's stimulation, the stimulated children came home and they activated parental curiosity - that's one thing; and second, parents themselves were directly encouraged to work with the child. And there was this very, very active engagement on the part of the parents that was - hadn't been there before.

And so you can literally see that the parents provide a warmer environment. They spend a lot more time with the child reading, playing and encouraging. And - you can think about it now - yes, the program's over in two years, but the kid doesn't grow up till 17, 18. So you have basically a cocoon, a nourishing cocoon surrounding the child, encouraging the child, staying with the child and fostering that child.

VEDANTAM: Sometimes the teachers explicitly taught parents how to use educational materials. In other cases, the meetings were more informal. They focused on building a partnership with the parents. Louise Derman-Sparks described how a home visit played out with one family.

DERMAN-SPARKS: I had one child who was the son of a mother who was still in high school. And they were living with the grandparent who worked all day, so I agreed to come in the evening. And the first night, I knock on the door and the mother of the child opens the door. And it was kind of what we used to call a railroad apartment. You know, you had the rooms one behind each other, small little rooms and the kitchen was the third room. And I could see the grandmother standing over the stove in the kitchen. And I knew that she had spent her day standing over a steam iron all day long. And now she was having to stand over the stove. And so the daughter opens the door. And the mother or the grandmother says, who is it? And she says, oh, it's the teacher. And she says, oh, [expletive], is she here? (Laughter) So I realized at that moment that I was intruding into a family's life, that this woman, you know, had been on her feet the whole day.

So I just decided then and there that I was going to adopt this much more informal way of doing it. And I asked her if I could sit in the kitchen so that she could keep cooking and bring the child into the kitchen, and we could play some games. And occasionally I would just start chatting with the grandmother. And that built into a relationship where we really could talk with the grandmother, the mother every time I came.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: How can a teacher who chats with a student's grandmother or acts out a scene with preschoolers make a lasting impact on children's lives?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Jim Heckman has followed the kids who went through the Perry Preschool Project. They're now middle-aged. And he's followed what happened to their children. What he finds is that an early investment in disadvantaged kids and their parents can pay dividends across generations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: A half century ago, the children in the Perry Preschool Project dressed up as pretend shopkeepers and learned how to count. They did science experiments without realizing they were doing science experiments. They went to the airport and watched as planes lifted off. They played with their teachers in their own homes as their parents watched. Those children are now middle-aged adults. James Heckman has tracked them to understand how they've done in life and how their children have fared.

HECKMAN: We have a very rich - so we went back and interviewed the original participants. And what we did is we gave people not only active tests about IQ, intelligence, things like that, but also we have measures of personality. And then we found out about their lifetime earnings. We looked at criminal justice system records to find out whether they had been incarcerated, what their criminal histories were. So we had measures of their blood pressure. We had measures of their stress. And we had measures of physical health and whether or not they had good diet, hip-waist ratio, various kinds of dimensions.

So we were able to measure, and what we find is very encouraging. The original participants are doing much better than the non-treated group. So the treated group - the ones who stayed in the program, who got the treatment - at 55 are doing much better in all these dimensions, including health. You see; that's the part. Think about it for a second. Originally the program was designed to raise IQ. Well, it still doesn't really raise IQ, but it does produce a lot of benefits in self-management, including the ability to manage your own health, to follow a healthy diet, to follow doctor's orders, to actually then go and get educated about disease and disease prevention.

So these people are healthier. They also have multiple benefits - less crime, more earnings. And so they're in a better position as they're now looking towards retirement.

VEDANTAM: But what do you find when you look at their children?

HECKMAN: We look at the children. We find some very strong effects. The children of the participants are healthier. The children of the participants are also earning more. They have better social and emotional skills, are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college, less likely to engage in the criminal justice system, so they're less likely to be incarcerated or even have ever been arrested.

So what you see is beneficial effects that go on to the next generation. And you ask, well, how could that be? And I'll tell you how it could be - because the original group, it turns out, not only did they benefit. They're more likely to have stable families and earnings during the time of stability. So they provide their own children with a nurturing environment far richer than it is for the non-treated children. They're more likely to be in stable marriages, more likely to have earnings. And as I mentioned earlier, they're less likely to go to prison, which is a major minus for earnings.

So what happens is - more two-parent families, more earnings. Their children have environments which are much richer. And so following a lot of research, the children benefit from being raised in those richer environments.

VEDANTAM: There is something quite incredible about a program that, you know, ran in the 1960s for a few years and is intervening in the lives of kids for maybe one or two years. And you're seeing the effects of that program 50 years down the road both in the lives of the people who went through the program and their children. I mean, that is incredible.

HECKMAN: Well, remember; I said something. Yes, the program itself lasted two years, but we did change the parents. So we changed - the parents themselves came out of that program with a greater appreciation for what their own children could do and a greater understanding of their importance in nourishing the child. So those original kids grew up in more welcoming, supportive environments than the other children.

That - so it wasn't just that we had two years and then dropped them in the ocean somewhere. They really had parents that were supportive. But yes, it is remarkable. It is remarkable because what it leads to then is the hope that this is a social program that not only benefits the recipient; it goes on. And it's, you know, the gift that keeps on giving, if you will.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HECKMAN: We also looked at another program, a later program, more intensive program called the ABC program - that was launched about 10 years later. That started at birth. So that started when the kids were 8 weeks old and had followed the kids until they were age 5 essentially - much richer, eight hours a day, five days a week. And if you look at what happened in that program - we just computed recently the rate of return, which is, you know, the kind of rate that a dollar would earn put in a bank or a bond.

So we found that the rate of return on the ABC program - we found that it was 14 percent per annum. And why? We're finding that there was a permanent increase in IQ that didn't fade away 'cause remember; this started at birth. And so starting early on, we can boost IQ. But all the other social dimensions were there. Parenting skills were improved. And then there was another dimension which frequently gets lost in the current discussion. This program also gave child care. And so as a result of the child care, the mothers of these children were able to work. They were able to go back to school, and they themselves had their lives transformed.

So the parents were transformed. The children of the parents were transformed. And again you had these intergenerational benefits. If you want to encourage children and raise them to be successful in the sense of controlling their own destiny or at least having more control over their own destiny and feeling - exercising, being the best they can be, we have to enrich family life one way or the other. And these programs do that.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if you can in some ways make the economic case for spending money. So a lot of people, as you point out, make sort of an argument of fiscal conservatism and say this is a waste of money; it's a black hole; you're going to throw money down the tube; you're not going to see it. As someone who has studied this work for a while, what is the economic case to be made for investing in early interventions especially for families of disadvantage?

HECKMAN: Well, the economic case is summarized simply. I mean, very few public investments have a rate of return above 14 percent. And that's what always stuns me when some people say, oh, this is costly. It is costly. You know, the transcontinental railroad was costly. I mean, building airfields and building airports and highways - all of these are costly, but it's the rate of return. It's what do you get out of the cost. And so it's the ROI, in other words. And we know that it's a very high ROI.

Unfortunately - and this is where our political system really fails us - that a lot of cases, the return is harvested downstream well after the governor or the mayor, whoever is initiating the program is out of office. And a lot of these benefits are lifetime benefits. And so - but we think about this. We built the Hoover Dam originally in the 1930s and the Grand Coulee Dam. And we built all of these public infrastructure projects. They - really nobody said, oh, Hoover Dam had to pay for itself in six years.

But I would argue that long-term investment and looking at what's good for the country for the next generation, even for this generation of adults when they get older and are asking their children to support them - they're going to have a bigger base, a better country with fewer problems, less crime, more health and more earnings and greater civic participation. So I think that's a - it's a social argument, but it's also a really sound economic argument. This is 14 percent per annum. That's beyond anything that most programs offer.

VEDANTAM: When you think about some other programs that have been conducted more recently - I'm thinking about a pre-K program in Tennessee, for example, that was evaluated - researchers find that these programs don't have, you know, strong effects on cognitive outcomes but also don't have strong effects on some of the social and emotional skills that we've been discussing. And they argued that in some ways, unlike the small, intensive programs like the Perry program or the ABC program, the Tennessee program was actually what - you know, if you scale up - if you were to scale up programs with early child intervention, what you see in Tennessee is what you would actually get. And that actually argues against spending that kind of money.

What would you make of that kind of argument, which is that when you look at these narrow programs and you talk about scaling up, it misses the point that when you scale up, you're going to get something that probably isn't high quality?

HECKMAN: Well, I mean, you get what you pay for. I have no doubt about it. This Tennessee program was cheaper. They're the ones who announced that this is the way a program has to look. I don't accept that. I mean, I think there can be higher quality programs that we can and should afford. You know, one of the things we ask - we brought the original Perry people to Chicago, to our center. These are the teachers, the first teachers - back to the '60s. They're quite old now, but they're - many of them are still alive and active and very engaged.

So we ask them a basic question - what was the curriculum you used? What is it you did? And so they said, oh, we did for these children what we would do for our own. So think about it for a second. These are middle-class mothers. They basically did for these kids what a middle-class mother does. So now you're asking a slightly different question. We say, OK, that's the ingredient. We're not talking about, you know, having supermen or superwomen come into the program. We're doing the kind of encouragement, warmth, engagement that a successful middle-class family would do for its own children.

Now, you ask the question - how expensive is that? Well, that's very expensive. Think about it. I mean, what does it cost for a woman, say, who stays at home - let's take the stay-at-home mother - or even the woman who's working and has very expensive childcare - to actually work and develop the child? You'll see a lot of middle-class women are doing that - going to work but they're also rearing their children.

VEDANTAM: And fathers, too.

HECKMAN: Yeah, and fathers - primarily mothers, though. I mean, I agree. Fathers are doing it, but that's a trend that's increasing. But it's still at a pretty low level, so yes.

But what - I would argue, look; the real problem is the family life. And how do we reproduce the kind of family life we know to be productive? We know it's not cheap. So take an educated college woman who's working say, let's say 35 hours a week - 40. Forty is easier to multiply. And let's suppose she's making something like - I don't know - $30 an hour. So you multiply. So it's like $30 an hour times 40. OK? So you're talking $50,000, $60,000. And probably, a lot of these mothers are worth much more - $50 an hour. They're making that investment. And that's the kind of cost of quality.

So when somebody says - oh, you know, we hired a bunch of people at low wages in Tennessee and they didn't produce miracles, they kind of take you to the cleaners with their mindset that's very limited. You know, they're making a whole set of premises that that's the way a program has to be constructed and the rest is just not feasible.

I think it is feasible. And we know it's feasible because millions of kids today are getting that precisely in their own homes. They're affluent children, and they're middle-class children. So we know that it's possible. The question is - is it possible to do that for the kids who are severely disadvantaged? And I think it is. But it's going to cost money.

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VEDANTAM: James Heckman is a professor at the University of Chicago. In 2000, he won the Nobel Prize in economics. He is co-editor and co-author of the book "The Myth Of Achievement Tests: The GED And The Role Of Character In American Life."

Jim, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

HECKMAN: Thank you. And I enjoyed the conversation very much.

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VEDANTAM: This week's episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen. It was edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel and Angus Chen. Special thanks to Brooke Valliere.

Our unsung hero is David Weikart. He was a psychologist and innovator and the creator of the Perry Preschool Project that we discussed at length in this episode. David, who died in 2003, had the vision not just to launch a randomized control trial among preschoolers but to systematically collect the kind of data that allows us, 50 years down the road, to learn all kinds of important things. There are lots of theories about what makes for a good education. We have David and his fellow education researchers to thank for adding heft and rigor to that conversation.

If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend. If they don't know how to subscribe to our podcast, please show them. I'm Shankar Vedantam. And this is NPR.

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