UChicago Economist James Heckman’s Research Helps Shape Early Education Policy

Renee L. Basick
Photo Credit: 
The Heckman Equation

Research by University of Chicago Nobel prize-winning Economist James Heckman figured prominently in the State of the Union Address delivered Tuesday evening. President Obama's ambitious agenda for universal early childhood education stems from research pointing to improved lifelong outcomes for children who participate in development programs from birth through age five. Specifically, Heckman's work shows that by implementing programs during the period of time a child's brain is most rapidly developing, it is possible to close the gap on achievement and increase success not only academically, but also in terms of health, social, and economic outcomes. 


In his address, the president stated, "The problem is we’re still not reaching enough kids, and we’re not reaching them in time. That has to change. Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education. Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every four year-old. As a parent as well as a President, I repeat that request tonight. But in the meantime, thirty states have raised pre-k funding on their own. They know we can’t wait. So just as we worked with states to reform our schools, this year, we’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children. And as Congress decides what it’s going to do, I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need."


In addition to the benefits to individual children, there is a bigger return on investment for the nation as well.


"Such investments will reduce the need for costly remediation and social spending while increasing the value, productivity and earning potential of individuals. In fact, every dollar invested in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children produces a 7 percent to 10 percent return, per child, per year," explains Heckman.


These findings were reinforced during the State of the Union address in an accompanying slide that stated, "Every $1 spent on early childhood eduction saves more than $7 later on." Realistically, the impact is even greater since that $7 is per child, per year. In Heckman's response to the address, he explained the advantages of pre-kindergarten programs for one group that suffers disproportionately poor outcomes--the children of families who fall into a lower socio-economic status than the national average. 


“Children from disadvantaged families arrive at kindergarten with a significant achievement gap in the knowledge, vocabulary and social skills necessary to compete and succeed in school. This gap is very difficult to close through remediation, special education and other programs. Quality early childhood education is a vehicle for reducing inequality, not by re-distributing wealth, but by pre-distributing the wealth of skills and abilities that helps people seize the opportunities of education, healthcare and employment," responds Heckman.


In November of 2013, members of Congress introduced the Strong Start for America's Children Act of 2013, a comprehensive proposal that outlines the expansion of early childhood education. Professor Heckman applauded this effort as a "step in the right direction." He also encouraged Congress to reinforce a few core aspects of the bill to bolster its chance of succeeding: "Focus on disadvantaged families, start at birth, integrate health, develop cognitive and character skills, and encourage local innovation in quality programs from birth to age five." The strength of these principles is supported by extensive research by Heckman's group, which studies the economics of human potential. Much of this research is available to the public on his research and policy-focused site,  http://heckmanequation.org/


Professor Heckman's full response to the State of the Union address is available here: http://heckmanequation.org/blog