Education and Money

I support James Heckman’s proposal and want to do right by the people who are the focus of it. So I’ll engage with several specific issues he raises.

First, to bolster his argument for early interventions, Heckman states that programs for adults “produce low economic returns.” Poor adults are in dire straits, so it’s no surprise that single interventions have limited success. But the story is more complex than economic analysis alone suggests. We need to be cautious in assessing compensatory programs for adults, for they provide a crucial second chance to a large and vulnerable population.

Analysis of GED outcomes provides an example of the limits of standard economic policy analysis of adult education. GED test takers vary widely: from the precocious middle-class kid who cannot stomach another day of high school to the 40-year-old who dropped out of a low-performing school, served time in prison, and survived on dead-end jobs. Preparation for the GED also varies widely: from a few hours of study to years spent in adult school or community college programs that embed GED preparation in a larger academic or occupational curriculum. Finally, there is considerable variability in the quality of the programs themselves. I can’t think of another educational examination that draws a population so mixed in age, academic background, motivation, and preparation.

Data sets used by policy analysts do not capture all this information, and statistical procedures typically deal in average effects that only register some of the meaning of this variability. While it is true that outcomes for GED takers are not on par with results among those who have completed high school, studies show that for people with low academic skills, the GED has labor market payoffs, and I suspect there are other benefits of GED preparation and adult education that current policy analysis doesn’t capture.

Another wrinkle emerges when we realize that even as people enter an adult school, community college, or occupational training course intending to complete it, previously unattainable jobs may open up to them as they build their skills. These opportunities are not great, but the students have pressing needs, so they may leave the program. Those who leave are counted as program failures, and their dropping out is viewed as evidence of their inability to complete rather than as a rational decision for someone in a tight spot. To better understand this population, we’d need both statistical analysis and documentation of lived experience.

There is also evidence that education begets education, so as parents get more education, it affects their involvement in their children’s learning. This potential benefit of adult education, even if incomplete, is unaccounted for in typical policy analysis.

Second, Heckman, and many others, divide skills into cognitive and non-cognitive sets, a distinction that is in some ways useful but that can also lead us astray. “Hard” or cognitive skills cover everything from literacy and numeracy to the problem-solving techniques of specific occupations. “Soft” skills involve personal characteristics such as responsibility and perseverance as well as interpersonal acumen, e.g., the ability to work with others. Soft skills have been getting the lion’s share of attention in programs for the disadvantaged.

Policy interventions in poor people’s lives should address the fact that they are poor.

Yet these skills blend in practice, and they can be affected by context. I am dogged in writing articles such as this, but my literacy skills and perseverance shut down amid tax forms and electronic devices. Furthermore, the best way to develop soft skills is through meaningful activity that has a cognitive dimension to it. The Perry and Abecedarian programs Heckman cites were cognitively rich.

My recent two-year study of people with poor educational backgrounds attests to this. I found that when poorly educated people were placed in occupational programs as diverse as fashion and welding, they acquired competence and also became more assured, attentive to detail, and committed to excellence, as well as better at communicating what they were doing and at helping others.

Segmenting complex skills can lead to awful educational practice: programs for kids will focus on soft skills and will minimize cognitive content; programs for adolescents and adults will be built around un-engaging tasks or exercises. Such programs will be ineffective and repeat this country’s shameful pattern of providing sub-par education for the poor.

Finally, I realize that Heckman’s argument for a particular kind of early-intervention policy avoids some of the ideological minefields in current political discourse. But it reflects a troubling increase in policy interventions in poor people’s lives that don’t address the fact that they are poor. We target their behaviors, beliefs, nutrition, and schools and say less and less about the sources of their poverty: growing inequality, the absence of jobs, lack of affordable housing.

Money matters, as Heckman’s article suggests: educated working women “have a steady flow of resources from their own income”; sociologist Sara McLanahan observes, according to Heckman, that “children in more advantaged homes are bathed in financial and cognitive resources”; and then there is the American Indian population enriched by a casino whose kids “showed substantial improvements in baseline measures of disruptive behavior.”

Steady employment and stable housing provide the foundation for mobility. Along with the excellent interventions Heckman advocates, another powerful intervention would be a robust jobs program for the poor.