Why the Most Significant Crime, Health, and Economic Policy Proposal in the State of the Union Was an Educational Policy

The president garnered praise and tears for his call on a gun control vote. But the most significant passage for the future of the policies he wants now had to do with education in its earliest form.

obama state of the union


The part of the State of the Union that seemed to move people the most, judging from my Twitter feed at least, was the president’s call for gun control, when he called out victims of gun violence—Hadiya Pendleton, Gabby Giffords, the families of Newtown—with the refrain that they “deserve a vote” on his previously outlined policies.

I’ve written at some length about having reasonable expectations for the effects of those policies on violence, and how on their own they’re unlikely to bring about the changes people need; it’s as much a public health and education crisis as one strictly of gun violence. Which is why an earlier passage struck me as crucial.

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. That’s something we should be able to do.

Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.

After the speech, Nick Kristof tweeted: “If we do get universal pre-k, credit goes to @heckmanequation, Nobel-winning economist whose research shows its benefits.” His work alone shouldn’t get the credit, but the research of the University of Chicago’s James Heckman is undeniably important. In his recent book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough describes Heckman’s work, and how it emerged from a famous project previously regarded as a disappointment:

The Perry Preschool Project is famous in social science circles, and Heckman had encountered it, glancingly, several times before in his career. As a case for early-childhood intervention, the experiment had always been considered something of a failure. The treatment children did do significantly better on cognitive tests while attending the preschool and for a year or two afterward, but the gains did not last, and by the time the treatment children were in the third grade, their IQ scores were no better than the control group’s. But when Heckman and other researchers looked at the long-term results of Perry, the data appeared more promising. It was true that the Perry kids hadn’t experienced long-lasting IQ benefits. But something important had happened to them in preschool, and whatever it was, the positive effects resonated for decades. Compared to the control group, the Perry students were more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be employed at age twenty-seven, more likely to be earning more than twenty-five thousand dollars a year at age forty, less likely ever to have been arrested, and less likely to have spent time on welfare.


The goodhearted educators who set it up in the sixties thought that they were creating a program to raise the intelligence of low-income children; they, like everyone else, believed that was the way to help poor kids get ahead in America. Surprise number one was that they created a program that didn’t do much in the long term for IQ but did improve behavior and social skills. Surprise number two was that it helped anyway—for the kids in Ypsilanti, those skills and the underlying traits they reflected turned out to be very valuable indeed.

Heckman himself has more in an essay in the Boston Review:

Well-executed early interventions are very promising. What about those that come later in life? Their success depends importantly on the quality of earlier interventions. Skills beget skills and capabilities foster future capabilities. Early mastery of a range of cognitive, social, and emotional competencies makes learning at later ages more efficient and therefore easier and more likely to continue.

We know immensely more about child-rearing than we did half a century ago, which is part of why the Perry results have come to be reinterpreted. But those gains in knowledge have accrued mostly to the well-educated, as Heckman writes: “children from disadvantaged environments typically have not received the massive doses of early enrichment that children from middle-class and upper-class families have.”

How do those gains come to be shared by disadvantaged children? Other developed Western (and Asian) countries have much more robust early childhood education programs. The United States ranks in the third or fourth tier of countries (PDF) in the comprehensiveness of its early childhood education, the training of its early-childhood teachers, and other measures. U.S. early childhood education tends to start later, cover less of the child’s day or year, provide less support for parents, and be of generally lower quality than in European countries (PDF).

But the problems start earlier than that, and are not exclusive to educational programs. Of 20 countries studied by the OECD (PDF), the United States had the stingiest maternal and familial leave policies: the shortest duration of guaranteed parental leave (12 weeks, unpaid) outside of Mexico; inconsistent maternity leave policies (“some paid maternity leave depending on workplace agreement,” and disability leave available in five states); and no guarantee of wage replacement, which ranges from 55 percent to 100 percent in most of the other countries, typically paid out of social-insurance programs.

Other Western countries also have stronger, more accessible pre- and post-natal care, so mothers generally receive pre-natal care earlier in European countries (PDF). Meanwhile, in the United States, the maternal death rate actually increased from 1990-2010, putting the nation in the company of “Russia, Central and South America, and parts of North Africa.” Recently, UIC’s S. Jay Olshansky found that life expectancy for white women without a high school diploma fell by five years over a similar timeframe, which “rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Female life expectancy in the U.S. overall grew from 1980 to 2009, but well behind the pace of other developed countries; the U.S. now ranks last.

That’s why Obama’s call for universal pre-K education gathered so much attention from wonks; the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews contends that it was the president’s biggest proposal, and one that would save money in the long run despite its up-front costs. But the problem extends beyond that—before pre-K, before birth, and even before conception as economic and public health trends fall on women the hardest.

Update: Much more from Bryce Covert at Forbes: “This has also helped earn us the distinction of being the worst country out of 16 developed nations for single parents to live, even though we have the highest rate of single parenthood” (PDF).

Update II: It’s worth noting that the state-level pre-K program most like the European model—closest to universal, with well-trained and highly compensated teachers—is in deep-Republican Oklahoma, the sixth-most conservative state in the land. Sharon Lerner explains how it works, how it came to be, and the evidence that it’s worked well in Tulsa, “the Sweden of the Ozarks.”


Photograph: The White House


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