When economist James Heckman was studying the effects of job training programs on unskilled young workers, he found a mystery.
He was comparing a group of workers that had gone through a job training program with a group that hadn't. And he found that, at best, the training program did nothing to help the workers get better jobs. In some cases, the training program even made the workers worse off.
The problem was that the students in the training program couldn't learn what they were being taught. They lacked an important set of skills which would enable them to learn new things. Heckman, a Nobel-Prize-winning economist, calls these soft skills.
You might not think of soft skills as skills at all. They involve things like being able to pay attention and focus, being curious and open to new experiences, and being able to control your temper and not get frustrated.
All these soft skills are very important in getting a job. And Heckman discovered that you don't get them in high school, or in middle school, or even in elementary school. You get them in preschool.
And that, according to Heckman, makes preschool one of the most effective job-training programs out there.
As evidence, he points to the Perry Preschool Project, an experiment done in the early 1960s in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Researchers took a bunch of 3- and 4-year-old kids from poor families and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. The kids in one group just lived their regular lives. And the kids in the other group went to preschool for two hours a day, five days a week.
After preschool, both groups went into the same regular Ypsilanti public school system and grew up side by side into adulthood.
Yet when researchers followed up with the kids as adults, they found huge differences. At age 27, the boys who had – almost two decades earlier – gone to preschool were now half as likely to be arrested and earned 50 percent more in salary that those who didn't.
And that wasn't all. At 27, girls who went to preschool were 50 percent more likely to have a savings account and 20 percent more likely to have a car. In general, the preschool kids got sick less often, were unemployed less often, and went to jail less often. Since then, many other studies have reported similar findings.
These results made me think: What is going on in preschool?
So I visited the Co-Op School, a preschool in Brooklyn. Eliza Cutler, a teacher there, said the kids do a lot of the same things the Perry Preschool kids did back in the 60s: They play, they paint, they build with blocks, and they nap.
If you didn't know where to look, you wouldn't see the job skills they're learning.
Yet they are learning valuable skills: how to resolve conflicts, how to share, how to negotiate, how to talk things out. These are skills that they need to make it through a day of preschool now. And they are skills they will need to make it through a day of work when they're 30.
If they learn these skills now, they'll have them for the rest of their lives. But research shows that if they don't learn them now, it becomes harder and harder as they get older. By the time the time they're in a job training program in their twenties, it's often too late.
Heckman is an economist so he thinks about this as a cost-benefit analysis. To him, the message is clear: If you want 21 year-olds to have jobs, the best time to train them is in the first few years of life.
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Over the past few months, we've brought you stories of babies and childrearing for our series Beginnings. Well, today, an ending. We conclude our series with two stories about early childhood education told by two reporters with a vested interest in the subject.
Nazanin Rafsanjani and her husband, Planet Money's Alex Blumberg, are parents of 13-month-old Calvin. In a moment, Nazanin explores a topic that many big city parents obsess about: how to get your toddler to ace the interview for preschool.
But first, here's Alex Blumberg on why preschool matters.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Let's start with a mystery - a mystery James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, discovered when he studied job training programs targeted at low-skill, low-education young workers. Heckman compared a group of these workers that had gone through a training program with a group that hadn't.
Dr. JAMES HECKMAN: I mean for boys, they would have been better off if they hadn't gone into the program. And for many other groups the effects were basically zero.
BLUMBERG: So these programs were supposed to train you in a new skill that would enable you to get a better job. And when you looked at them, they didn't do that. And in some cases, they actually made you worse off?
HECKMAN: They harmed people, correct.
BLUMBERG: It wasn't that these programs weren't teaching the right subject matter, it was that the students didn't learn it. Students in these programs, Heckman discovered, lacked a whole set of skills - skills which actually enable you to learn new things. Heckman calls these soft skills. You might not think of them as skills at all. Can you pay attention and focus? Are you curious and open to new experience? Can you control your temper, not get frustrated?
And Heckman discovered, these soft skills, which are so important in getting a job, you don't get them in high school, not in middle school, not even in elementary school. You get them here.
JULIAN THOMSON HARRIS: I love trains. That's why I'm going to make trains.
BLUMBERG: You're going to make a train?
BLUMBERG: This is Julian Thomson Harris, he's three, and he's a student at the Co-Op Preschool in Brooklyn. And Julian is right now at the age where a lot of the skills you need to find a job get formed.
Preschool, James Heckman found, might be one of the most effective job-training programs out there. One piece of evidence he looked at, a study called the Perry Preschool Project.
HECKMAN: In the early-'60s, some very visionary individuals conducted a social experiment.
BLUMBERG: The experiment took place in a poor section of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Researchers took a bunch of kids there, three and four years old - over half of them were from families on welfare - and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. Half the kids just lived their regular lives. Half the kids went to preschool - just a little bit - two hours a day, five days a week.
Then, both groups went back into the same regular Ypsilanti public school system, grew up side by side into adulthood. But when researchers followed up with the kids as adults, they found huge differences. For example, at age 27, the boys in what Heckman calls the control group - the ones who didn't go to preschool - got arrested a lot; more than two times each. But in the preschool group, what Heckman calls the treatment group?
HECKMAN: In the treatment group that was cut in half.
HECKMAN: You look at monthly earnings on the job, the control group is earning about two-thirds of what the treatment group is earning.
BLUMBERG: So these kids who - over 20 years ago - got two hours a day of preschool, decades later they were half as likely to be arrested, earned 50 percent more in salary. And that wasn't all, girls who got preschool, when they get to age 27, were 50 percent more likely have a savings account, twenty percent more likely to have a car. Preschool kids got sick less often, were unemployed less often, went to jail less often. Lots of other studies have had similar findings.
Which raises a question: What is going on in preschool? I asked an expert.
Do you come here every day?
ELLA CAMERON: Yeah.
BLUMBERG: And when you come here, what do you do?
CAMERON: I don't know. I just don't know.
BLUMBERG: This is Ella Cameron, a three-year-old at the Co-Op School in Brooklyn. She's not from a disadvantaged family; her parents are paying to send her here. But she's doing a lot of the same things the Perry Preschool kids did back in the '60s.
Ella's teacher, Eliza Cutler, was better able to explain what exactly that is.
ELIZA CUTLER: They kind of - they play in the morning and then we'll sit down and have like a morning meeting, just having general conversation about what we might do during the day. Then we play outside. And then they take a little nap.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLUMBERG: There's painting, building with blocks. If you didn't know where to look, you wouldn't see all the job skills being formed.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I'm using that one.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (unintelligible)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Not even, I can't have just one?
BLUMBERG: Right there, those kids - they're working through a crucial lesson. How to resolve conflict. How to share. How to negotiate. How to talk and not fight. Skills they need to make it through a day of preschool now, skills they need to make it through a day of work when they're 30.
If they learn these skills now, they'll have them for the rest of their lives. But research shows if they don't form these skills now, it becomes harder and harder the older they get. By the time the time they're in a job training program in their 20s, it's often too late.
Heckman is an economist, and he thinks of all this in cost-benefit analysis terms. And to him, the message is clear: If you want 21-year-olds to have jobs, the best time to give them training is in the years right after they're born.
For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.