The Educational Industrial Complex

A new paper by Nobel Economist James Heckman is incredibly interesting if you care about the present and future of lower-income Americans.  He discusses why the War on Poverty failed, the importance of families in skill production, and why later-life interventions are not cost effective.

His argument is as follows:

1.  A lack of skills and not opportunity is the main challenge affecting workers of all racial groups.  In particular, a lack of soft skills hurts many workers.

2.  Families play a hugely important role in skill production.  While some of this is genetically transmitted, the family matters a lot.  Unfortunately, more and more kids are being raised in dysfunctional families.

3.  Very early involvement a child’s life is the most cost-effective intervention and this is best done by the family.  Public or private interventions need to figure out how to help families raise kids better early on without violating the sanctity of the family.

You should read the whole thing.

Educational Industrial Complex

I am predisposed to Heckman’s argument, especially the importance of family over later-in-life school intervention.  Virtually every teacher I know will say there is only so much the schools can do.  Testing, class size, charter schools might (or might not) be good, but teachers see a deficit of parenting as critical main hurdle.  Teachers feel like the positive impact they make is swamped by the negative impacts of dysfunctional families that have accumulated over the child’s life.  As the paper points out, even a pre-school teacher is a couple years too late.  A lot of damage has already been done to a kid with poor-quality parents.

Heckman pleads:

American public policy has to shift to acknowledge that the core skills needed for success in life are formed before children enter school. [bold in original]

By our nature we want to be gods who can engineer society.  We want to solve the educational problems with testing, class-size reductions, charter schools, technology in classrooms, Teach for America, merit pay, and so on.  What I call the “educational industrial complex” has blossomed to meet this demand.

Yet, if Heckman is right most interventions are, at best, investments with a low rate of return.  We must admit even 5 year-olds cannot be easily molded into productive citizens by a well-trained education army .  We must relinquish the belief in our collective ability to educate and admit families matter.

(This does not mean we shouldn’t try to make schools better.  My point, and Heckman’s, is that a budget constrained society may need to realize the cost effectiveness of the educational industrial complex relative to family-based approaches is poor.  We might need to think about spending resources differently.)

How to Improve Parenting

Heckman tries to show you get the most bang for your buck by targeting children at a very early age.  He also emphasizes a “government as parent” model is disastrous.  Individuals, private organizations, and the government should be asking how they can help parents be better parents.

My impression is that you don’t teach parenting from a guidebook.  Teaching parenting is a messy process that requires personal attention and getting involved in people’s lives.  Lowering class size is easy.  Working day-in, day-out alongside a new mother to help her parent better than her parents is hard.  This is all necessarily hard for the government to do well.  We all should think hard about how we can help others parent well.

I think our own president is an example of good parenting in less-than-optimal circumstances.  They were not rich, but his mother and grandparents cared deeply about his character and education.  Do you remember this ad from the campaign?:

Candidate Obama: “She’d wake me up at four thirty in the morning and we’d sit there and go through my lessons and I used to complain and grumble and she’d say well this is no picknick for me either Buster.”

Voice-over: His life was shaped by the values he learned as a boy. Hard work, honesty, self-reliance, respect for other people, kindness, faith.

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