Photographer: Alex Tehrani
America is a nation of paradoxes, including one that is often overlooked. In the land where “all people are created equal” a glaring inequality exists: all children do not receive an equal education, yet they are expected to compete on equal footing for university placements, jobs and careers. By the time they reach college age, poor children are often so far behind that catching up with their wealthier counterparts becomes a monumental, if not impossible, task.
Despite the best of intentions, low income parents often simply do not have the resources or training to provide the kind of enriched environments for their kids that more well-off parents can offer.
|Students from Harlem Children’s Zone.|
Solutions for how to remedy this situation have been proposed by every U.S. administration for the past fifty years, from Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” to George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” But in an era of breakthroughs in neuroscience and new understandings of child development, one economist has a proposal that flies in the face of conventional wisdom about education. Nobel Laureate and University of Chicago Professor James Heckman believes that, contrary to the current emphasis on test results and testing, attributes like motivation, self-discipline and dependability play an equal role in predicting a child’s eventual ability to reach his or her potential. The good news? Such traits can be taught more easily than traditional thinking skills, take less funding overall, and create substantial economic benefits.
Numerous instances can be cited of high IQ people who fail to achieve success in life because they lack self-discipline and low IQ people who succeed by virtue of persistence, reliability and discipline
According to Heckman’s research, early interventions aimed at both cognitive and noncognitive skills, with an emphasis on the latter, produce results for low-income children, even thirty years down the road. “The greatest effect of early childhood programs is on motivation and achievement, not IQ,” he says. Providing young children with enriched environments pays dividends in terms of their eventual contribution to society in tax dollars, as well as preventing costs associated with crime, welfare and drug treatment programs.
As an example, Heckman points to the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, conducted over a forty plus year span beginning in 1962. This study of 123 preschool students, ages three and four, set out to determine the effects of an enriched environment on poor African American children deemed at high risk to fail out of school.
From 1962–1967, the young subjects were randomly divided into two groups: one which received the preschool training and one which didn’t. The students were then interviewed at ages nineteen, twenty-seven, and again at age forty. In comparison with the no-program group, the program group had:
Attributes like motivation, self-discipline and dependability play an equal role in predicting a child’s eventual ability to reach his or her potential.
A cost benefit analysis conducted showed an economic return of $258,888 per participant based on an initial investment of $15,166. According to their statistics, this worked out to $17.07 per dollar invested, with $195,621 going to the general public through education savings, increased taxes due to higher earnings, and welfare savings, and $63,267 going to each participant.
|“Baby College” in the Harlem Children’s Zone.|
The problems of disadvantaged families, says Heckman, are usually portrayed as “a question of fairness or social justice.” He’s interested in reframing the argument to one of simple economics, in part for purposes of political clout when it comes to public policy. Providing more opportunities for poor children, he argues, creates not only a more just society but also greater wealth for the nation.
Heckman’s original interest in the topic sprang from a disturbing summer in 1963 spent touring the Deep South with a Nigerian friend. Observing not only the racism directed at his companion, but the gross economic and educational inequities inherent in Southern society, Heckman decided to devote himself to addressing the root causes of inequality. His ensuing research has brought him to the conclusion that cognitive abilities are only half of the picture. “Numerous instances can be cited of high IQ people who fail to achieve success in life because they lack self-discipline and low IQ people who succeed by virtue of persistence, reliability and discipline,” he says. “It is surprising that academic discussions of skill and skill formation focus almost exclusively on measures of cognitive ability and ignore noncognitive skills.” Such skills are valued in the marketplace; today, employers can and do screen for characteristics such as dependability.
Providing young children with enriched environments pays dividends in terms of their eventual contribution to society in tax dollars, as well as preventing costs associated with crime, welfare and drug treatment programs.
Although programs for older adolescents are often attempting to undo years of neglect and impoverished environments, they can nevertheless produce positive results when focused on areas like motivation, self-esteem and mentoring. A 1995 study of Big Brothers and Big Sisters found that eighteen months after being matched with a big brother or big sister, ten to sixteen year olds were “less likely to have initiated drug or alcohol use, to hit someone, to skip class or a day of school, or to lie to their parents; they had better grades and were more likely to feel competent in their schoolwork and report a better relationship with their parents,” says Heckman.
|A student at a Harlem Children’s Zone school.|
As a result, he recommends directing funding towards such self-development skills. “Social policy should be more active in attempting to alter noncognitive traits, especially in children from disadvantaged environments who receive poor discipline and little encouragement at home,” he says. “This more active social-policy approach would include mentoring programs and stricter enforcement of discipline in the schools.”
Just as the quality of a student cannot always be measured by a test, Heckman believes the same can be said of teachers. He cites evidence that individual educators matter in terms of raising test scores, but contends, “Conventional measures of teacher quality do not predict who are the good teachers. Bureaucratization hinders use of local knowledge.” He advocates for greater discretion among principals to use such knowledge to reward – or punish – teachers.
Independently of Heckman, Geoffrey Canada came to many similar conclusions and is currently putting them into practice in the Harlem Children’s Zone, a ninety-seven block program in central Harlem created by Geoffrey Canada. Harlem, home to cycles of generational poverty, has become the breeding ground for one of the greatest social experiments in American history. After the birth of his second child, Canada noticed the difference in the kinds of information about parenting that he had access to as an upper middle class father than what he’d had the first time around, when he was an impoverished teenager. What if, he wondered, other poor parents could discover the same knowledge he was now privy to? As reporter Paul Tough, author of Whatever It Takes, an account of the HCZ puts it, “What specific resources did middle-class children have that allowed them to succeed at such higher rates than poor children? What skills did poor children need to help them compete? And most importantly, what kind of interventions in their lives or in their parents’ lives could help them acquire those skills?”
By the time they reach college age, poor children are often so far behind that catching up with their wealthier counterparts becomes a monumental, if not impossible, task.
After searching for answers in science, educational theory and economics, Canada created the HCZ, an ambitious attempt to raise an entire generation of Harlem residents out of poverty beginning while they’re still in the womb. A multitude of educational opportunities starts with Baby College, a class for parents prior to birth, and continues through the different stages of a child’s life. The results have thus far been promising; in fact, President Obama has expressed interest in using the project as a blueprint for similar programs in pilot cities around the country.
With this new administration will undoubtedly come new discussions on educational policy. As our understanding of child development continues to grow, we may see fundamental shifts in educational theory and practice as it relates to wealth and poverty. If, as James Heckman suggests, we can eradicate the neurological disadvantages currently faced by poor children, we may at last become a place where everyone has an equal shot, regardless of income or circumstance.