Heckman in the Post
In an interview with Ezra Klein on the Washington Post’s website, the economist James Heckman (who I wrote about in my book and in the New York Times Magazine) has some kind things to say about my recent op-ed, but is less optimistic than I am about Promise Neighborhoods:
Heckman: Look, President Eisenhower built the highway system. President Obama could build the child production system if he wanted to. It would have a much higher payoff than a lot of the programs that are currently there. If you do a cost/benefit analysis of the rate of return for job training, if you talk about early convict rehabilitation programs or literacy training for adults, the rates of return on those programs are generally quite low, very low. It’s just a question of using the same dollars wisely.
Last week there was a great op-ed piece in the New York Times by Paul Tough. He pointed out that we’re spending billions, $8.2 billion a year on Head Start, and Head Start is not a very effective program.
If you had an enriched version of Head Start and invested the same amount of money, you’d get much higher payout in the long run. Each of these programs has a political barnacle connected with it. People are promoting it because they see some advantage, but at the same time there’s really no value in those programs. The point is it’s not a question of raising new money, it’s a question of using existing money wisely.
Klein: If somehow the economy gets to a place where [the Obama administration] can move on to other issues, what would a good first step, federally, be, in moving toward high-quality early education?
Heckman: What you do is move beyond the Harlem Children’s Zone focus that seems to have gripped the administration. That’s fine, but it hasn’t really been evaluated in any serious way yet and it’s not clear that’s the answer.
The key idea is to encourage more experimentation across a broader range of projects, targeting a larger range of people and providing a refocus of what these programs are all about, which is teaching aspects of self-confidence and teaching these soft skills which are typically ignored in a lot of social and political life.