JACKSON – Economist James Heckman, viewed as one of the nation’s leading experts on early childhood education, says governments can get their “best bang for the buck” on programs that provide educational services to children under the age of 3.
He also said that low quality day-care centers that do no interactive activities with children can have a detrimental impact on their development.
Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner in economic sciences and director of the Economics Research Center and the Center for Social Program Evaluation at the University of Chicago, made a presentation Thursday at an event sponsored by the University of Mississippi Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning. The speech was held in the auditorium of the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.
On Friday morning, he met with with media members and others interested in his research related to early childhood learning and its importance to the economy.
In recent years, he said that many politicians have advocated for 3- and 4-year-old programs. He said such programs could have a positive impact, but not as much as programs that worked with children at an even younger age.
Cathy Grace, co-director of the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning at Ole Miss, and who was the founding director of the Family Resource Center in Tupelo, said such a program would be most beneficial if they had centralized locations to work with kids. It would also be beneficial to have the program in high poverty areas with trained workers who would visit the children in their home to also work with the parents, Grace said.
Mississippi is still grappling with what type of early childhood learning program it will develop. There are about 1,400 licensed day cares in the state – some high quality and others not. Often, the children from lower socio-economic conditions, who could most benefit from the higher quality day cares, do not have access to them.
The state has, on a limited basis, created early learning collaboratives where the local public schools work with day care providers and other groups on structured programs.
The collaboratives have been praised, but the state’s financial commitment to the effort thus far has been minimal – $4 million annually.
Grace, Heckman and others say a financial commitment would save the state money in the long run in terms of having more productive citizens. Even in the short run, there is evidence that good early childhood learning programs reduce some need for more expensive special education programs.
Heckman said research has shown that such programs have been able to increase IQs. But even if IQs are not increased, research shows that the children often are better students and work harder in school.
He said it sounds fluffy, but the “soft skills” improvement can be impactful for children in quality early childhood education. He said many people used to believe such items as motivation and ability to get along with others were character traits, but research reflects they are skills that can be taught. The earlier the effort to do so, the better, Heckman said.