ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
All this week, President Obama is traveling the country, fleshing out some of the proposals that he unveiled in his State of the Union address. Today, he visited an early learning center in Decatur, Georgia, and talked about making high-quality preschool available to every child in America.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Every dollar, every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on.
SIEGEL: Well, that argument - that early childhood education delivers a high rate of return later on - comes from, among other sources, the work of economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago. And Professor Heckman joins us now. Welcome.
JAMES HECKMAN: Glad to be on the program.
SIEGEL: You argued that early childhood education not only improves the school performance but also promotes things like healthy lifestyles at work, productivity later in life. And you put a number on it: Every dollar invested in early childhood development provides a 7 to 10 percent per annum return on investment. How does one get to those numbers? And how do we know that it's early childhood education to thank?
HECKMAN: Well, actually, it's simple in this case. An experiment, the Perry study, a series of experiments were performed in which children - disadvantaged children primarily - were given enriched environments, pre-kindergarten environments and some environments going back to the earliest years at birth. And what happens, as the groups were randomly assigned, some to this enriched treatment and some control group, these people were followed into their adult lives.
These children, originally sampled in the 1960s, they're now about 50 years of age. They've been followed in terms of their earnings, their criminal activity, measures of their health, education attainment and so forth, so we can actually compare what the return was to the people who got the treatment - the Perry study - and the control group, who did not.
SIEGEL: What we're talking about here is, first of all, the cost to society being less among people who've had this experience and also their incomes and therefore their productivity being greater?
HECKMAN: Yes. And, in fact, I think it's understated. But yes, you're looking at their income, you're looking at the reduced crime, you're looking at all series of pro-social activities as opposed to the cost of special education, the cost of, basically, remediation. So it's really the benefit of prevention versus the cost of remediation. That all goes in there.
What these programs are doing and what families are doing, really - these programs are just, really, ways to kind of supplement family life - are building a set of capabilities that enable the child to have a successful life as an adult, to be functioning in society, to be able to control temper, to be able to work with others, skills that are valued, I think, almost universally and that I think do have real effects across a wide range of behaviors.
SIEGEL: Opponents of the president's idea say that the studies he is alluding to here are still small in scale and that they're not representative of mass programs. Did you have any answer to that about the scale of these longitudinal studies?
HECKMAN: Well, there are two aspects. First is that the small sample sizes associated with these studies actually worked to find those statistical relationships. So the fact that such strong relationships emerged from the data is really kind of against the fact that they're small samples. So that, I would argue, is somewhat specious.
But secondly, there are programs - maybe not experimentally evaluated - that have gone to scale. The Chicago Parent-Child Program is a program that's been going now for some 30 years and counting in the Chicago public schools. We've looked at the effects of that intervention over the life cycle of the children. And I think that evidence suggests that these programs can go to scale.
SIEGEL: Joseph Tobin, an educational anthropologist, has made a comparative study of preschools in the U.S., China and Japan over the past 20 years, and he's found differences in cultural values from country to country, in social values from one decade to the next. We're a very diverse country.
Does early childhood education or preschool, for that matter, does it mean the same thing in rural Utah as it does in urban Chicago, or if it's publicly run or if it's, say, religiously run?
HECKMAN: Your question is right at the nerve of the whole debate and concern, I think, about early childhood activities. There's no question that we have great value on the sanctity of the family, and there are a lot of competing visions about exactly how we teach a set of values and we teach skills to our children, especially in the early years when they're really forming their personalities, their personas, really.
But I would argue there is a core set of values, a core set of capabilities that transcend the religious, the social and ethnic differences. In other words, I would argue every parent would want their child to actually have the capacities to succeed, to be able to acquire knowledge and to function on their own, to have autonomy, to have what some would call agency in the sense of being able to be self-propelling and self-controlled, being able to essentially shape their own life in their own terms.
And it's that universal core that has to be focused on and nested in a cultural context.
SIEGEL: Professor Heckman, thank you very much for talking with us today.
HECKMAN: Thank you. Hope it's useful.
SIEGEL: James Heckman is professor of economics at the University of Chicago and also Nobel laureate in 2000. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.