If we had any sense as a society

We would so invest more in high-quality pre-school.  The return on investment is just amazing.  All of us benefit when a person who might have been incarcerated, on welfare, etc., ends up being a healthy, productive member of society.  And we know high-quality pre-school can help make that happen.  NPR with an interview with the guru on these matters, James Heckman:

What if the investment is in children, and the return on investment not only makes economic sense but results in richer, fuller, healthier lives for the entire family?

That’s the crux of a new paper out Monday, The Life-Cycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program, co-authored by Nobel laureate James Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development

Your study found enduring positive effects of quality pre-K on a lot of things, including future earnings, health, IQ and crime reduction. Is the bottom line here stronger, fuller, richer lives?

Yes it is, but it’s more than just stronger, richer, fuller lives for the children. It’s also stronger, richer, fuller lives for the mothers of the children. Let me explain why. In America today we have a lot of single-parent families. We have a lot of mothers who are working.

What was the (annual) per-pupil spending while these children were in the program?

Per-year it’s probably about $16,000 to $18,000. It depends on what (year) dollars you use. It’s expensive.

That is pretty high. You’re saying you get what you pay for?

Well, yes, it’s a lot. But what are you getting in return? You’re getting hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Seven to eight hundred thousand dollars back for what is essentially an $80,000 to $85,000 expenditure. Yes, it costs more but we can go back and think: In its time the transcontinental railroad that Abraham Lincoln launched, the Hoover Dam, the transcontinental highway system that Eisenhower launched. These all were very costly, but they also led to enormous social benefits.

These programs have enormous social benefit. They help to solve a lot of social problems. The way public policy is discussed frequently in this country is through silos. People say, “We want to reduce crime. We want to promote health.” We do what is, I think, a very limited kind of notion: looking at one problem at a time and one solution very closely linked to that problem. I would encourage people who see the price tag to also look at the benefit tag. They’re well-documented. [emphasis mine]

Oh, I so love that part.  So much obviously smart policy is utterly hamstrung by these silos or what I call, “the tyranny of separate budgets.”  Big problems we need to approach in a big way– and that means holistically.

I also really like this part at the end when he gets into teaching and parenting:

As you know there’s been a big emphasis on what constitutes high-quality child care centers. What elements are vital to create these great early learning centers?

There’s this enormous body of evidence talking about parent-child interaction. The structure of a successful [center] would be one that encourages those interactions, that fostered those.

Are we talking about empathy?

Well, yes, we’re talking about empathy, and we’re talking about the structure of engagement with the child, and at the core of successful programs is parenting. It’s not so much having a pretty building. There’s a whole mentality out there that says, “We have a textbook notion about what constitutes a good school. The teachers must have a certain level of educational attainment.” There have been a lot of studies, serious studies, that show that many of these so-called guides to what makes a good teacher — in terms of things like number of degrees or number of teacher credits and on and on and on — are really worthless in terms of predicting who’s a good teacher. What is important is finding this empathy, this ability to work with people, the engagement.

By empathy all I really mean is, you work with a child, you stay with a child, a child asks questions, you answer the questions. You don’t discourage the questions and you promote them. At the same time you have a firm line where you say, “Yeah that’s a mistake. You could go do a little better,” and so forth.

We need a national empathy project, Professor Heckman.

Probably could use it across the board and not just in early childhood!

Amen to that.  Good stuff.

 

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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