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Predistribution vs. Redistribution: Professor James Heckman

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This is a guest post by Cindy Heine, Associate Executive Director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and Angela Brant, Special Project Consultant for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

We were privileged to welcome Professor James Heckman to Kentucky to speak to a group of business and civic leaders and early childhood advocates last week about the value of investments in young children and their families. Dr. Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at The University of Chicago, is a Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics and an expert in the economics of human development. His groundbreaking work with a consortium of economists, developmental psychologists, sociologists, statisticians and neuroscientists has proven that the quality of early childhood development heavily influences health, economic and social outcomes for individuals and society at large. Dr. Heckman has proven that investing in early childhood development produces great economic gains.

Dr. Heckman's compelling presentation delivered the message that the case for investing in early childhood makesgood common sense, and he shared research to back up his conclusions, showing that gaps which can be demonstrated among 3-year-old children continue through high school. The intervention of school and remediation seem to make little difference and the later we try to remediate the higher the cost.

Skills are a major source of productivity, and he has come to the conclusion that the problem of gaps between children and adults is a skills problem that begins in the earliest years. To reduce such societal problems as stagnant wages, crime and teen pregnancy and improve health care and education levels, we must address the problem at its roots - the early years, when the soft skills or character skills are established. Skills such as persistence, motivation, problem solving, self-confidence, and self-regulation serve children and adults well throughout their lives.

Developing these skills starts at home and, as the number of single parent families and families in poverty increase, he suggests investing in those families and children through quality programs that support the development of what he describes as character skills. These skills, his research shows, are better predictors of success than IQ scores and cognitive test results.

At a time when our nation clearly needs more highly skilled people , we are experiencing a decline in skill development and an increase in the number of high school dropouts, with fragmented solutions and remediation among our unsuccessful attempts to meet the challenges. Scarce resources demand diligence among policymakers in seeking strong returns on investment; thus, the "predistribution vs. redistribution" of public dollars Dr. Heckman advocates would attack the problem of poverty and low skill development at its earliest phase instead of trying to spend more and have less success on remediating the problems that result.

Dr. Heckman's bottom line : Public policies should reflect the importance of families and provide the support needed to help children gain the skills needed for a lifetime.

As advocates for improved education, we must share this message with policymakers, opinion leaders, friends and colleagues - that the common sense solution of investing in young children and their families is supported by research - and insist on investing public dollars in programs that can actually make a difference.

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