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August 11, 2009

Nobel Prize winner on Early Childhood Education

This Fall, Congress will be debating a range of proposals designed to bolster early childhood learning. A current hot topic is how critically important learning is, even before children get to the classroom. One of the nation's leading proponents of early childhood education is Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, the Henri Schultz distinguished service professor of economics at the University of Chicago. He's an expert in the economics of human development and has written extensively about the benefits of early childhood development. Heckman believes that investing in children from birth through five years of age is essential and pays enormous dividends.

In a recent National Public Radio interview, Professor Heckman talks with Michel Martin about some of his studies on poverty, race, education disparities and their cost to society. Here are some excerpts from that interview:

"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.

... 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....

... 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."

When asked about the inequality in educational resources due to race, he had this to say:

"I think partly because 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 [got] 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, 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."

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