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Posted at 3:27 PM ET, 03/ 7/2011

The three essential truths of public policy according to James Heckman

By Ezra Klein

Nobel laureate James Heckman has spent years studying how we can invest in people so that the money actually make a measurable, positive difference in their lives. What he’s learned (pdf) can be summed up in two words: Start early.

Public policy to promote skills has to reckon with three essential truths distilled from a large body of research conducted in the wake of the War on Poverty. First, the skills needed for success in life are multiple in nature. Success requires more than cognition and smarts. Soft skills are important. Conscientiousness, perseverance, sociability, and other character traits matter a lot, even though they are largely neglected in devising policies to reduce inequality.

Second, skill formation is a dynamic, synergistic process. Skills beget skills. They cross foster and promote each other. A perseverant child open to experience learns more. Early success fosters later success. Advantages cumulate. Young children are flexible and adaptable in ways that adolescents and adults are not. It is much easier to prevent deficits from arising in the early years than to remediate them later. The War on Poverty took a shotgun, scattershot approach to fostering the skills of disadvantaged persons of all ages and stages of development. Its policies did not target the years when interventions to promote skills are most effective.

Third, families play an essential role in shaping the skills of their children. Skill formation starts in the womb. The early years of a child’s life before the child enters school lay the foundations for all that follows. Large gaps in abilities between the advantaged and the disadvantaged open up early before children enter school. Unequal as they are, American schools do little to widen or narrow these gaps. The family plants and nourishes the seed that grows into the successful student and adult. Families in jeopardy produce children in jeopardy who often grow into adults who fail to realize their potential. We know much more about the powerful role of the family in shaping adult skills than we did in the 1960s.

Here’s more from Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias. They’re arguing over whether it’d make sense to take $50 billion out of K-12 education and put it in early-childhood development. I think that probably would make sense if it was the only option on the table, but I’d urge people not to think of the federal budget as so siloed. What would really make sense is to reduce the growth rate of Medicare, or cut spending on weapons and wars, and put some of that money into giving young Americans the best chance to live healthy, happy, productive lives.

By Ezra Klein  | March 7, 2011; 3:27 PM ET
Categories:  Education  
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Success (no matter how you define it) depends on three things

- circumstances of birth

- drive

- luck.

Everything else is tied for remote fourth place.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 7, 2011 3:30 PM | Report abuse

"What would really make sense is to reduce the growth rate of Medicare, or cut spending on weapons and wars, and put some of that money into giving young Americans the best chance to live healthy, happy, productive lives."

Geez, put down the hippy cigarettes, Gandhi.

(for the sarcastically impaired: this is snark)

Posted by: willows1 | March 7, 2011 4:13 PM | Report abuse

"Success (no matter how you define it) depends on three things

- circumstances of birth ...."



If so, that would only seem to strengthen the argument that effective strategies that help offset the effects of disparate "circumstances of birth" for the pre-schoolers in our society would be useful in improving success rates, would it not?

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 7, 2011 4:43 PM | Report abuse

I have to question the "Early Childhood" stuff. I'm not surprised that you see a huge gap between 3-year-olds from families with very different education levels that never goes away, but it's not clear that this is evidence that there is any value in early childhood intervention. Kids who are members of highly educated families when they are age two are very likely to be members of highly educated families when they are age four, five, and sixteen;

it would seem perfectly possible that the achievement gap remains throughout childhood because the family gap remains throughout childhood. An 'intervention' at this age that does not involve kidnapping the child and placing him or her in a higher-achieving family does not appear to have proven added value beyond intervention at any other age.

Posted by: eggnogfool | March 7, 2011 5:17 PM | Report abuse

eggnogfool - I think examples of education, intellectualism, or success can come from either inside the home or outside the home. The point of early education seems to be to make kids less intimidated by the whole educational experience so that they are open to learning from adults that aren't their own parents. I've heard it said that the success of kids who come from rough backgrounds depends very heavily upon the presence of at least one adult in their life that they trust. This is almost always a parent, but you could probably think of some examples where it may not be. It seems like in order for a kid to get to a trusting relationship with an adult, they have to be in a state of mind that allows this to happen. Perhaps early education nudges them in that direction by exposing them to other adults at a young age. Just a thought.

Posted by: willows1 | March 7, 2011 5:56 PM | Report abuse


Very difficult to get in early enough to offset bad family background. I don't support all day pre-pre nursery school.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 7, 2011 6:08 PM | Report abuse


Ok. If you believe there simply is no such thing as "effective strategies" (the key phrase in my prior comment), and that it is the destiny of all of this children to fail, that's another matter.

My own comment presupposes that Kevin Drum is correct when he asserts:

"Intensive, early interventions, by contrast, genuinely seem to work. They aren't cheap, and they aren't easy. And they don't necessarily boost IQ scores or get kids into Harvard. But they produce children who learn better, develop critical life skills, have fewer problems in childhood and adolescence, commit fewer crimes, earn more money, and just generally live happier, stabler, more productive lives."

If that statement is true, it sounds to me like a worthwhile place to target some funding, and from which we might reap societal rewards later on.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 7, 2011 8:36 PM | Report abuse

p.s. to John,

Did you actually read the Heckman document? In case not, I'd recommend doing so before dismissing the potential utility of this approach out of hand.

He cites a number of specific successful programs, and in one of the footnotes points to a Cambridge study that analyzes more.

None of these are anything like "all day pre-pre nursery school," and Heckman has a lengthy discussion of the positive rates of return per dollar spent relative to dollars spent later on. If you can tear yourself away from CNBC for a few minutes, give it a look.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 7, 2011 10:56 PM | Report abuse

kids dont vote

Posted by: greenchoyss | March 8, 2011 7:50 AM | Report abuse

Many blame teachers for failing the children but we all know that the atmosphere at home that fosters attitudes in children is most responsible for a child's success in the classroom. Perhaps some day teachers will be asked to intervene as parents would but right now we slap them around when teachers intrude in our family lives. They are reviled by many for teaching evolution, sex education, global warming and many other controversial truths but what should they be teaching? Superstition and nonsense.
The truth is that public education has become a political football and we are all players. We pass it, kick it or run with it as suits our purpose. But we rarely stop to think of the people in the crossfire and the children beyond our own personal agenda. The abilities and knowledge now required before they can teach is vastly superior today then just a few years ago. Why are more and more students failing to benefit from education? Please stop blaming teachers, they are people just like you and I and their skills and knowledge have been improved substantially in just the last thirty years. So what is causing the problem? Here is a novel idea! We don't really support or reward kids for obtaining a good educations. Our kids know we don't support education, especially public education, by the way we talk about it and reward those involved! Educators have always known that kids learn from example and from experience. And so have we! The example we set, our lack of respect for a public education is our number one problem. The choice is ours and we shouldn't blame someone else when we fail to support our local schools and instead become a thorn in their side. I never got a college degree and barely managed a high school diploma. But I came to appreciate education and how it could improve my life. My kids were raised in a home that respected education. One of my sons is now a teacher-{he just got one of Governor Walkers pink slips}-even though he graduated Magna Cum Laude and is good at his job. My other son is a doctoral candidate on a full scholar ship in molecular biology. We are a simple working family who valued education and didn't let controversy or politics sidetrack us. They went to public schools and I thank the educators that helped them along the way. I didn't have too many expectations of teachers being supermen so I did what I could to assist them and my reward is successful sons. One of life's biggest rewards!

Posted by: tryreason | March 8, 2011 8:06 AM | Report abuse


Great post and great topic, while I agree basically 100% with the logic and research, I would like to see some focus placed on how to avoid encouraging people that are having children who can't either support the child or even themselves in the first place. We should increase funding for children in the earliest of years, but we should also not incentivize people to keep having children under the notion that the government and school will raise and pay for these children. There has to be some balance here.


Posted by: bwparker1 | March 9, 2011 1:13 PM | Report abuse

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