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Notes From the Fieldby Martin Weil

June 24, 2011

The best way to create jobs … preschool

Take a bunch of 3 year olds from poor families. Randomly divide them into two groups, and give one group free access to preschool. Then follow both groups for 40 years. This is what the researchers in the Perry Preschool Program did, starting in the early 1960s.

The results were astonishing. Kids from the preschool group were less likely to be arrested and more likely to have a job. Among those with jobs, those who went to preschool made more money than those who did not.

According to this recent Planet Money podcast, most adult job-training programs are a waste of time and money. What does have a huge payoff, particularly for under-served communities? Preschool. James Heckmann, University of Chicago economist, is interviewed about his “rediscovery” of a ground-breaking study that began in the 1960s.

According to Heckman, and a recent article in Science magazine, the results and cost-effectiveness of preschool intervention are convincingly demonstrated in multiple studies.

So why, as a nation, are we not making that commitment, at a time when job and employment should be at the top of our national priorities (see yesterday’s post)? I put it down to the nature of public discourse today, defined by voter/consumer/investor need for instant results – and the natural response by politicians and companies to provide same. Imagine for a moment a Mayor/Governor/Congressperson/President having to wait 20 years or more to point to the payoff of an investment in pre-school education?

Behaviorists call this “present bias” (or simply impatience) and it leads the average person to over-value short-term rewards to the detriment of longer-term payoffs. The widespread failure to adequately save for retirement or address our dependence on foreign oil are two examples. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” I guess.

Market failure is a contributing issue.

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