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Giving Kids a Fair Chance

Giving Kids a Fair Chance

James J. Heckman
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 152
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  • Book Info
    Giving Kids a Fair Chance
    Book Description:

    In Giving Kids a Fair Chance, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman argues that the accident of birth is the greatest source of inequality in America today. Children born into disadvantage are, by the time they start kindergarten, already at risk of dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, crime, and a lifetime of low-wage work. This is bad for all those born into disadvantage and bad for American society.Current social and education policies directed toward children focus on improving cognition, yet success in life requires more than smarts. Heckman calls for a refocus of social policy toward early childhood interventions designed to enhance both cognitive abilities and such non-cognitive skills as confidence and perseverance. This new focus on preschool intervention would emphasize improving the early environments of disadvantaged children and increasing the quality of parenting while respecting the primacy of the family and America's cultural diversity. Heckman shows that acting early has much greater positive economic and social impact than later interventions -- which range from reduced pupil-teacher ratios to adult literacy programs to expenditures on police -- that draw the most attention in the public policy debate. At a time when state and local budgets for early interventions are being cut, Heckman issues an urgent call for action and offers some practical steps for how to design and pay for new programs.The debate that follows delves deeply into some of the most fraught questions of our time: the sources of inequality, the role of schools in solving social problems, and how to invest public resources most effectively. Mike Rose, Geoffrey Canada, Charles Murray, Carol Dweck, Annette Lareau, and other prominent experts participate.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31436-7
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. I Giving Kids a Fair Chance
    (pp. 1-44)

    The accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today. American society is dividing into skilled and unskilled, and the roots of this division lie in early childhood experiences. Kids born into disadvantaged environments are at much greater risk of being unskilled, having low lifetime earnings, and facing a range of personal and social troubles, including poor health, teen pregnancy, and crime. While we celebrate equality of opportunity, we live in a society in which birth is becoming fate.

    This powerful impact of birth on life chances is bad for individuals born into disadvantage. And it is...

  4. II Forum

    • Mike Rose
      (pp. 47-54)

      I support James Heckman’s proposal and want to do right by the people who are the focus of it. So I’ll engage with several specific issues he raises.

      First, to bolster his argument for early interventions, Heckman states that programs for adults “produce low economic returns.” Poor adults are in dire straits, so it’s no surprise that single interventions have limited success. But the story is more complex than economic analysis alone suggests. We need to be cautious in assessing compensatory programs for adults, for they provide a crucial second chance to a large and vulnerable population.

      Analysis of GED...

    • Robin West
      (pp. 55-62)

      James Heckman provides an economic argument for a claim that is often thought to be supported at most by moral considerations: greater societal involvement in the early childhood experiences of children from disadvantaged homes can close the skills gap between those children and others, thereby reducing our widening inequalities.

      In Heckman’s account, early interventions are efficient as well as equitable and just: they cost far less than doing nothing, and less than later interventions that do little. There is no reason then that economists, or anyone else concerned with putting dollars into wise investments, shouldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with...

    • Charles Murray
      (pp. 63-68)

      I have no important disagreements with James Heckman’s description of the significance of early childhood experiences or the radical differences in those experiences among children of different socioeconomic classes. I am no less eager than he to find solutions. But we differ in our confidence about the state of knowledge regarding early childhood intervention.

      The most famous evidence on behalf of early childhood intervention comes from the programs that Heckman describes, Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian Project. The samples were small. Perry Preschool had just 58 children in the treatment group and 65 in the control group, while Abecedarian had...

    • Carol S. Dweck
      (pp. 69-76)

      James Heckman has done an extraordinary service by bringing psychological research on early interventions to the attention of a broad audience. His review of the scientific evidence is compelling and makes the case that parental training and educational enrichment in the early years have critical and lasting effects on children. Further, he makes the extremely important point that these effects are mediated not by changes in IQ, but rather by changes in non-cognitive factors, such as motivation, persistence, and resilience.

      Arguing that allocating funds for early education programs is preferable to funding programs that deal with the aftermath of poor...

    • David Deming
      (pp. 77-82)

      There is a strong argument that the roots of inequality are in early childhood and therefore we could use a major shift in social policy toward early intervention.

      I agree with James Heckman that spending on early childhood education has a high rate of return, and that the benefits of a large increase in spending on early childhood education would most likely exceed the costs. In a perfect world, we would have high quality programs available to all children. In reality, since resources are scarce, we have to make hard decisions about the best use of public funds. A key...

    • Neal McCluskey
      (pp. 83-90)

      James Heckman is right: our ability to succeed is not determined solely by our genes, and some early childhood programs have had lasting, positive effects. But those effects aren’t necessarily big, and how to take them to scale is a huge unanswered question.

      Studies certainly show that more than just genetics affects children’s success. Research by David Armor, for instance, reveals that factors such as infant nutrition, cognitive stimulation, and the number of children in a family significantly affect a child’s IQ. EvenBell Curvecoauthor Charles Murray admits that “maybe we can move children from far below average intellectually...

    • Annette Lareau
      (pp. 91-98)

      The costs of poverty for young children are high, and James Heckman does well to point this out. All the evidence suggests that the first few years of childhood matter.

      Still, he does not give sufficient weight to the role of social institutions in shaping the life chances of children. Parents give children a start, but families interact with many institutions. Childcare centers, public schools, social services providers, health care services, employers, and police and courts are just a handful of the institutions that young people may encounter as they move out of the family and into the world. These...

    • Lelac Almagor
      (pp. 99-106)

      James Heckman argues that because social inequality originates in early life, our public policy ought to focus on effective early intervention. Closing the gaps in development early—or preventing them in the first place—would create an equitable starting point for society, whereas later intervention means hustling to correct one by one a whole cascade of inequalities that accumulate into adolescence and adulthood.

      Each component of this idea seems solid. There’s no doubt that some kids are working at a disadvantage long before they set foot in the school where I teach, so it makes sense to ascribe these disadvantages...

    • Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse
      (pp. 107-114)

      The findings showing that the right kinds of experience in early childhood are keys to a productive, successful, and enjoyable life are compelling. So is Heckman’s claim that these findings require us to redirect social policy—to change our strategies for our collective investment in children. More resources should be targeted at early childhood, and, perhaps more important, the early years should be given greater priority in terms of the intellectual and institutional resources devoted to devising high quality interventions.

      The barriers to success are considerable: one political party is devoted to reducing the supply of public funds and attention...

    • Geoffrey Canada
      (pp. 115-122)

      As James Heckman argues, we need to be smarter investors with our public-education dollars and increase funding for early-childhood education. But we also need to improve our efforts for all the phases of our children’s lives.

      To make the kind of dramatic progress we need, we have to rethink our definition of public education, so it begins before kindergarten and goes beyond classroom walls. Schools are the centerpiece of our children’s academic life, but they are failing to inspire, educate, and develop millions in poverty. We need to radically reform a public education system that has been paralyzed for decades....

  5. III Aiding the Life Cycle
    (pp. 123-134)

    I thank the respondents for their comments. Their interesting points deserve more than the abbreviated response I can give here.

    My analysis is cast in a life cycle perspective. It considers the origin of themultipleskills that produce success or failure in many aspects of life. It analyzes the consequences of life cycle dynamics through which family investments and social environments produce cumulative advantages and disadvantages. Skills beget skills. The early years are crucial in creating the abilities, motivation, and other personality traits that produce success downstream: in school, in the workforce, and in other aspects of life. Environments...

    (pp. 135-137)
  7. Back Matter
    (pp. 138-139)