It Pays to Invest in Early Education Says a Nobel Economist Who Boosts Kids’ IQ

BY Paul Solman  February 22, 2013 at 10:29 AM EDT

Paul Solman interviews economist James Heckman, who researches the value and effects of early childhood enrichment programs.


One economist has found a powerful connection between a child’s early education programs and his or her earnings, IQ and behavior later in life. Photo by Flickr user Sarah Gilbert.

Paul Solman: James Heckman is one of the economists of the hour — a quirky star whose work is now in the limelight. He teaches at the famously conservative University of Chicago, where previous Nobel laureates have also worked, including Milton “Free to Choose” Friedman and Robert “Rational Expectations” Lucas. But work in “microeconometrics” — the statistical study of individual responses to public policy — has reached decidedly liberal conclusions.

A policy that has obsessed Heckman since he moved to Tennessee at age 13: racial segregation and its effects on minorities in America. A much-cited 1991 paper demonstrated the efficacy of federal civil rights policy on African-Americans’ economic progress.

Since his Nobel Prize in 2000, Heckman has focused on early childhood education, focusing on ways to achieve the long-thought-to-be impossible: boosting the IQ scores of disadvantaged children, and therefore, their economic futures. I interviewed him about his work several years ago. Here, on the occasion of President Obama’s new push for investing in early childhood education, is an edited version.

Making Sense


James Heckman: Let me give you a startling finding about achievement gaps. Suppose you pay children in the 5th and 6th grades, right when you think of the achievement gap opening up between blacks and whites, to take an IQ test.

Say you have unmotivated black kids living in the middle of the ghetto and white kids from Scarsdale or some other upper-class neighborhood. You give each kid who gets a successful answer one M&M — just give them an M&M — and you say for each point extra on the IQ test, each correct answer, I’ll give you one more M&M. It turns out that the gap between the black and white student in the IQ test scores vanishes — vanishes completely.

Let me give you another startling finding. If you take disadvantaged, minority children starting at age six to eight weeks — I mean, they’re literally just born — and you follow these kids and give them intensive interventions for about eight years, you can boost their IQ at least up to age 21. You can see permanent differences between the treatment and control groups in both men and women, boys and girls.



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And so what do you do to boost these IQ scores?

James Heckman: What you do is do what a normal middle-class parent does. Disadvantaged parents are simply not providing much information. That’s what these programs can do. They can encourage the child by saying, “Look, you were born into certain conditions, but there are other opportunities for you.”

The Baby College program at Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone is trying to foster exactly this same kind of notion: enriched parenting, providing children with encouragement and creating early environments promoting cognitive skills and non-cognitive skills. Just something basic like reading to the child on a regular basis, a very simple human activity that many of these disadvantaged kids don’t get, can have payoffs, in terms of IQ.

When it comes to payoffs in terms of IQ, what kind of difference are we talking about?

James Heckman: It hasn’t been so well measured as you would hope, but I’ll give you another study that we did, on the Perry Preschool Program. These were kids ages four and five in the 1960′s. They got much less intervention than the other program I was describing.

But they came in for two, two-and-a-half hours a day. They were given a goal: “What are you going to do today?” So they planned. They did the project. They reviewed the project in groups, and they learned to get along with each other. We followed these kids who are now 50 years old.

This type of intervention didn’t raise IQ, but their achievement tests, the common measure of IQ, were higher. Their crime rates were lower. We have direct measurements of social and emotional skills, showing that those were greatly improved.

How much can you change IQ? How much difference can you make on a kid’s IQ?

James Heckman: Well, one project had a change of between four and five points. Five points can be the difference between someone having subnormal *and being *normal. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot more potential.

A typical finding in these studies is you’ll find a surge early on [in improved IQ scores] and then a tailing off. But that’s because when a kid is in a program, he’s being enriched and being enhanced.

I don’t know if you’ve taken an IQ test recently, but I bet you were much worse than you were when you were at school; not just because you’re older, but also because when you’re in school, you’re taking tests all of the time. So there is a fade out that occurs when people get out of these enriched environments.

We’re so used to thinking of IQ as being genetically given, used to thinking of these traits as somehow embedded at birth, but they’re not. The whole literature in genetics is now talking about gene-environment interactions: epigenetics.

Here is an example: When you raise Rhesus monkeys — they share about 95 percent of humans’ genes — with a form of disadvantage, you affect 23 percent of all their genes. The genes are there, but the genes themselves don’t do anything.

So you can have two identical monkeys, one raised in adverse conditions, another one raised in good conditions, and 23 percent of their genes will be different. The fact of the matter is, environment matters.

So what do you do if you can’t get to kids in the first few months of life?

James Heckman: Well, there are remedies. I don’t want to make this into a very precise science where I can say, “At age three months and two days, you should do this.” I wish to God that we knew that, but we don’t and we’re working on it. But we do know roughly that the early years are very important and the later we wait, the harder it is. After age 10, IQ becomes very, very hard to change.

You’re a University of Chicago economist, which suggests a certain conservatism with regard to economics, right?

James Heckman: Yes, but what I take from Chicago is not some hard line about minimum wages or anything of the sort, but understanding that incentives really matter. Alfred Marshall is one of the inspiring forces of the Chicago tradition.

And Marshall, in his book, “Principles of Economics,” made this remark:

“The greatest capital that you can invest in is human capital, and, of that, the most important component is the mother.”

So he was talking about early motherhood, maternal interventions, the importance of the family. We know there are a lot of differences genetically; there are a lot of differences that emerge. But what we also know is that we can work with those differences and so we recognize individuality, we supplement individuality and when, in some cases, the individuality looks like it’s heading in a bad direction, we can do something about it.

I’ll give you an example of gene-environment interaction. James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein wrote a book called “Crime and Human Nature” about the determinants of crime. They said there is a genetic predisposition for crime, and there is! Have you heard about the MAOA gene?

If you go to the State Prison of Georgia or any other prison you’re going to find an overabundance of what are called “MAOA genes.” This gene is very predictive of violence, especially early onset violence. But it turns out — and this is an amazing finding, within the last several years — if you take two individuals with the same MAOA gene, one raised in a middle class environment, one raised in an environment with a tremendous amount of violence in the background and not much family support, it is only in the latter environment that the MAOA genes show any predictive power for criminality.

In the middle class environment, it’s as if it never was there. That’s a powerful gene-environment interaction. And that’s just one gene! When you’re thinking about all of the genes we have and that 23 percent of all of them could be affected by these early environments …

So your punch line is: Genes are very important, but the environment in which genes are expressed is really your destiny.

James Heckman: Correct. And that, I think [environment] is powerful. You can shut down the operation of a gene, because certain aspects of the gene will never manifest themselves, or certain negative aspects can be reinforced by it. The gene is still the same but it can be shut down, or it can be enhanced.

So what’s an economist doing spending all this time on genetics and Rhesus monkeys?

James Heckman: Because I’m deeply interested in inequality: why one person succeeds and another person fails. What is the contribution of the family? What is the contribution of markets? I mean, there’s a whole range of questions, so it’s not always just genetics; it’s not always the family.

We can change who we are. We can improve ourselves in various ways and we can give ourselves possibilities. I hate to use the word “improve” because that suggests a kind of social planning, a kind of normative action.

What I’m thinking of is a sense of capabilities. It’s basically saying, give a child more possibilities to do whatever he or she wants to do with their life. So you give them more capacities: more capacities to solve math problems, more capacities to do music, more capacities to control their anger or maybe not control it, but they could willfully be angry rather than just be angry impulsively.

So the idea is to enhance these capabilities. These translate into earnings. These directly translate into who goes to school and who succeeds at school. IQ is a factor, but conscientiousness and motivation play a huge role.

The traditional story of economists has been to say education explains what the returns are to school. I say, “Okay, that’s fine, but what explains the education? How much is just a matter of my giving you a poor kid versus a rich kid?”

The real scarcity isn’t money. The real scarcity, at least when it comes to this matter of forming skills, is parenting. And that explains a lot of paradoxes. You have kids growing up in some of the worst circumstances financially, living in some of the worst ghettos, and they succeed. They succeed because an adult figure, typically a mother, maybe a grandmother, nourishes the kid, supports the kid, protects the kid, encourages the kid to succeed. It’s as if the environment never happened.

That’s so important for social policy because think of what Lyndon Johnson was doing 45, 50 years ago. I think it was a very sincere effort. I deeply respected the effort but I think it was a failure. Clinton admitted it was a failure by the 1990s. Giving people money to change poverty and hopefully raise the standards of the next generation didn’t seem to be doing much good. What we failed to understand was that the measure of poverty we were using was way too crude. The poverty was parenting. Of course, when the kid is starving and doesn’t get any iron, then of course money would matter. But we’re not typically at that level; it’s much more what the quality of the early environments are.

In some states over 80 percent of African-American families are now single parent. Even among Hispanic families it’s a staggering figure, which has traditionally not been the case. To the extent that those early environments are actually worsening in this dimension, that should translate — and does seem to translate — into deteriorating conditions for the next generation.

So what you’re getting is kids growing up in a new form of child poverty. That new form of child poverty is actually threatening their ability to go to school, their willingness to learn, their attitudes and their motives. That’s a major source of inequality.

On top of the regular factors that affect increasing inequality — globalization, unions getting weaker — there’s the factor of deteriorating parenting?

James Heckman: Yes, I think there is, although I wish I had harder numbers. There’s another study done by some demographers, Susan Bianchi in particular. More educated women are working more than they ever have before. They’re also spending more time on child development than they ever have before. Why? Because they’ve read all this literature about child development.

Less educated women are also working more – not quite as much – but they’re not spending any more time in child development. So there’s a great divide – that’s what the demographers call it, “the Great Divide” – between the haves and the have-nots. So the parenting inputs are essentially not being achieved.

And in many cases, the kids are growing up and going into childcare facilities that are second rate, that are basically not really providing them with the stimulation that a good middle class family might do. And so that’s another source of disadvantage and it’s exactly the sort of disadvantage, by the way, that Alfred Marshall was worried about back in the 1870s and 1880s.

Since we don’t seem to be willing or able to do much about the usual influences on inequality, why do you want to focus your attention here?

James Heckman: This is one avenue I think we can go about it. Especially if we’re thinking about poverty in the next 20-30 years.


This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions