Economics professor stresses early childhood education
Nobel Laureate in economics James J. Heckman spoke in Oak Park Nov. 15 to discuss early childhood education. | Contributed photo
Updated: December 23, 2012 6:35AM
OAK PARK — Investing in preventative, data-driven early childhood education is the most cost-effective way to grow the nation’s economy, a Nobel Laureate in economics said Thursday evening.
“It’s more important than ever before to have an empirically grounded public policy,” said James J. Heckman, Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago.
Heckman delivered the keynote address titled “Building a Productive Workforce and Strengthening the Economy from Birth” to about 275 residents at Unity Temple in Oak Park. He spoke at the invitation of the Collaboration for Early Childhood Education, a public-private partnership made up of more than 40 local agencies.
An expert in the economics of human development, Heckman said politicians who set public policy for the past 50 years have been misguided in their efforts to address social problems one at a time, rather than holistically.
“Fragmented solutions don’t work, and the problems need to be addressed at the core level,” he said.
Armed with statistics looking at income, educational attainment and the role of parents, Heckman said the gap in socially relevant skills between the advantaged and the disadvantaged “opens up very early in the lives of children.” Attempts to close the gap through anti-poverty initiatives, programs to improve cognition or book learning, and crime interventions haven’t been as successful and have even led to declines in some indicators, such as high school graduation rates.
The skills that need to be developed, Heckman said, are softer skills, such as perseverance, attention, self-discipline, motivation and self-confidence. Investing in programs that develop these skills, he added, would be socially fair, promote equal opportunity and have a greater return on investment.
“It sounds soft and fuzzy, but we have research that these skills are important and can be produced,” he said.
In fact, the annual rate of return on a proper investment in early childhood education would be between 6 percent and 10 percent, much higher than the 0 percent return of a training program such as Job Corps, he said.
“It’s cheaper and more effective to give the kids money and put it in a passbook account than to reduce classroom size by five students,” he said.
But the family – particularly the mother – most influences the outcome of the child, Heckman insisted.
“Any policy investing in children should be investing in families,” he said.
Heckman praised Oak Park and its residents for thinking beyond the usual solutions and trying to think outside the box with initiatives such as the collaborative, which has a goal of spending $1.5 million to bolster early childhood programs. However, Heckman said he feared that even $280 spent on each of the 5,400 pre-school-age children living in Oak Park might not be enough.
During opening comments, Village President David Pope noted that early childhood education could be crucial to reducing Oak Park’s expenditures. Of the police department’s $18 million budget, about 75 percent, or $14 million, is spent on interaction with youth, he said.
“We have a huge challenge in Oak Park with the children who come into our schools with the kind of deficits many of them face,” he said.