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James Heckman on the Drivers of Human Success

April 13, 2010

by Dan Richards

How does this differ from the Head Start program, which goes back to the 1960s?

It differs in several ways.  What we have come to understand is that Head Start is a start in the right direction, but it’s not intensive enough and it doesn’t generally start early enough to as effective as it could be. 

There are two dimensions.  What we didn’t think of in those early intervention programs was about the quality of the program.  That quality of the program was substantially compromised.   A lot of the Head Start participants’ parents were actually serving as mentors to the children themselves.  So you really weren’t changing the quality of the environment.  So some Head Start programs were very enriched and some were not.

We learned about quality and we learned that starting early makes a big difference.

There is a wonderful group at the University of British Columbia, people like Adele Diamond and Tom Boyce, showing that in very important ways, in terms of personality and in terms of health, that early years are shaping the whole structure of what we are and what we become.

As an economist, I see this as an investment, where you are enhancing the skill base.  And that makes all the other investments so much more productive.

The motto is skill begets skill and productivity begets productivity.  The dynamics of this are fascinating to understand, and I think they can shape and reshape the way we think about social policy.

One of the observations in one of your articles is that, when you adjust for income, minorities participate more in college and advanced education than we would otherwise expect.

Let me be careful.  What I really said was a little bit different from that.  What I suggested was that it wasn’t income per se.  Once you adjust for ability at the time they are going to college, you find, irrespective of family income, an able minority, partly because of affirmative action and other programs, is more likely to be going to college.

But – and this is the second part of it – we typically think of ability as fixed – some frozen thing you are born with.  The key development in this whole literature is how we can produce ability, and that ability has multiple aspects.  It’s more than just IQ.  IQ is not solely genetic.  You can change IQ in a permanent and positive way.  There is much more needed for success in life than just IQ.

In some sense you think that minorities are beaten down because of ability gaps and achievement gaps that open up long before kids go to school.  But it’s not genetic – at least not purely genetic.

That’s the important part of my research that has huge implications for social policy.