Kevin Drum on Professor Heckman’s work: some comments

Well-known Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum has some comments on early childhood programs. His comments are largely based on his reading of Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman’s work. (Full disclosure: Professor Heckman has provided a quite positive blurb for my book Investing in Kids).

Kevin Drum interprets Professor Heckman’s work as saying that “Roughly speaking, nothing we do after age three has much effect”. (This is quoting Drum’s interpretation of Heckman, not Heckman.)  Kevin Drum goes on to say the following:

“Heckman isn’t calling for an end to efforts to improve education, and neither am I. But both of us are skeptical about the flavor-of-the-month “reforms” that pop up periodically, are endorsed unanimously by the great and good, and then disappear within a few years to be replaced by some new silver bullet—and always without producing any scalable, practical, long-lasting results.”

“Intensive, early interventions, by contrast, genuinely seem to work. They aren’t cheap, and they aren’t easy. And they don’t necessarily boost IQ scores or get kids into Harvard. But they produce children who learn better, develop critical life skills, have fewer problems in childhood and adolescence, commit fewer crimes, earn more money, and just generally live happier, stabler, more productive lives. If we spent $50 billion less on K-12 education—in both public and private money—and instead spent $50 billion more on early intervention programs, we’d almost certainly get a way bigger bang for the buck.”

What should be said about this commentary?

First, the position that “nothing we do after age three has much effect” is vastly overstated, even “roughly speaking”.  As extensively discussed on this blog and in my book Investing in Kids, high-quality pre-k at age 4 has a very high benefit-cost ratio. The benefit-cost ratio of pre-k at age 4 is larger than for some intervention at earlier ages. “The earlier the better” is only partially true.

In addition, there are a variety of later interventions that work. We know that lower class-size from kindergarten through grade 3 works, from the Tennessee Class-Size study.

Beyond grade 3, I think it is true that interventions have to become more targeted and more attuned to the individual and to the labor market. But even here, there are actually quite healthy returns to many well-run school reform programs and to well-run job training programs. For example, there is good evidence that Career Academies work in high school.  There is good evidence for the effectiveness of some summer school programs. Job training programs with close ties to employers can be quite effective.

More broadly, the evidence that teaching quality matters is overwhelming. And there is significant evidence that more teaching time matters. If we can figure out how to reform schools to improve teaching quality and time on task, student achievement could be increased significantly. Kevin Drum is right that this is difficult to do. But I’m not as pessimistic as he is about the potential for such reforms.

Second, the notion that early interventions always have to be “intensive” and “aren’t easy” is somewhat overstated. As I have outlined in earlier posts, the benefit-cost ratio actually appears to be somewhat higher for one-year (at age 4) of half-day pre-k during the school year than it is for going to a full day or going to two years of preschool. More intensive programs do not always have a higher benefit-cost ratio.

In addition, I think that while high-quality pre-k programs, or a high quality Nurse Family Partnership program, are not cheap, they are not necessarily unduly difficult to run. The evidence suggests that a typical state or school district can figure out how to run an effective pre-k program.  You have to spend enough to have reasonable class sizes and to attract and retain good teachers. But it does not require extraordinary abilities at program management.

Third, I agree with Kevin Drum that the average ”bang for the buck” (benefit-cost ratio) is higher for some early childhood investments than for many investments in K-12 education.  In chapter 7 of Investing in Kids, I make this comparison.  I conclude that the benefit-cost ratio of universal pre-k is roughly two-and-a-half times the benefit-cost ratio of lower elementary school class size.

However, this does not mean that investments in K-12 education don’t pass a benefit-cost test. Kevin Drum is probably right that reallocating $50 billion from K-12 education to high-quality early childhood interventions would produce net economic and social benefits.  However, we would get greater economic and social returns from financing investments in early childhood programs in some other way. There are investments in K-12 education that also have benefit-cost ratios greater than one, although early childhood investments do better.  Increased taxes would be one better alternative to financing increased early childhood investments. Alternatively, there are other government spending programs that are less productive than both early childhood programs and K-12 education.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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