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Nobel laureate James Heckman discusses the shocking importance of an elementary education

A strong college education has always been considered a staple for long term success. Studies frequently highlight wage premiums and other discrepancies between college graduates, high school graduates, and high school dropouts to paint the necessity of a high school or college diploma for long-term success. However, the education needed to lead a prosperous adult life may be developed significantly earlier. Early childhood education, even before a child enters the kindergarten classroom, have been shown to be a stronger catalyst for educational and societal success. James Heckman, a renowned economist, spoke to the merits of developing prenatal to pre-k programs to ensure such success in the United States.

A professor at the Chicago School of Economics and the 2000 Nobel Laureate, Heckman came to Northwestern for the Institute for Policy Research’s Distinguished Speaker Series on April 27th. He is perhaps most well known for his groundbreaking research in econometrics. The Heckman process, a procedure for correcting selection bias, won him the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2000 and would be more aptly discussed in a graduate level econometrics course. Heckman’s discussion on Monday was focused on a more digestible topic, the benefits of early childhood education.

In his talk, Heckman explained that his current research focus is on “the economics of human flourishing,” or understanding how individuals can build the skill-set to succeed in today’s economy. In his discussion, he returned frequently to a graph that summarizes his current position. The model showed a relatively simple decreasing convex curve, with the largest return per dollar spent on education coming in the beginning years of a child’s life from prenatal to around age four. Heckman explained that both families and the government need to focus on early childhood education.

Education and learning is dynamic, Heckman stated. These educational skills that we build now permeate throughout our lives and has been shown to facilitate future learning, lower rates of crime, and improve health. He cited the Abecedarian project at the University of North Carolina as his main piece of evidence, which followed low-income children’s lives after they were given “full-time, high-quality educational intervention from infancy through age 5.” There were significant positive impacts on lifetime test scores, academic achievement, college attendance, and lifetime habits.

Beyond the benefits of early childhood education lie obvious racial undertones. Educational discrepancies, especially with current private Pre-K programs, strongly disfavor individuals of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. When asked what really pushed him to explore racial differences and economic disparities, Heckman cited living in the still strongly Jim-Crow South as a child and a close college friend as major motivating factors.

Heckman concluded his discussion with a basic call to action. The benefits of adopting younger, government-facilitated education programs is a “no-brainer.” The returns to investment are extremely high for both the family and the country. “Facilitating early education should not be a partisan issue. Caring about our children is not a Democratic or Republican position,” Heckman stated in the discussion. However, Heckman did acknowledge that Republicans have made significant strides towards facilitating earlier education. “States frequently viewed as Republican, such as Oklahoma and Texas, have been some of the forerunners in early childhood education programs.” Unfortunately, education policy, especially of the early variant that Heckman is advocating, will not be a primary focus of our current election cycle. Due to the promising results of his research, Heckman does remain optimistic of the future.

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