Williams professor writing on background argues that I was too snarky/skeptical in this post about the efficacy of early childhood education.

If you asked me to name an economist who has worked on the returns to early childhood education, the first name that comes to mind is Jim Heckman, a professor at the University of Chicago who happens to have won a Nobel Prize. He is certainly one of the most evidence driven economists of his generation. After years of work, Heckman’s view is fairly nuanced, but I would characterize it as generally supporting funding for early childhood education (especially high quality programs targeted at the disadvantaged).

Here is one quick summary from his website:


Just the title — “Invest in Early Childhood Development: Reduce Deficits, Strengthen the Economy” — pretty much tells you his position.

If you want a more complete summary of his thinking on the issue, I have attached an NBER working paper from last fall that is now a book chapter. The paper has a couple of pages on Heckman and his co-authors’ view of the Lipsey work that you cite. I think the top of page 58 has their bottom line. A simple summary would be “Nobel prize winning economist not impressed with program evaluation from professors of education at Peabody.” Read the whole paper if you want to really learn about the topic. It isn’t the last word on the topic, but it certainly suggests that your one-sided characterization of the evidence is off the mark. (Of course, Heckman and his friends at Chicago might all be fellow travelers but I doubt that you want to try that argument.)

Indeed! Comments:

1) As always, our readers make for the best EphBlog material. Share your thoughts in the comments!

2) In any research field in which there are both randomized trials and observational studies, you should put 99%+ weight on the former.

3) Heckman is a deserved Nobel laureate in that, prior to 2000, his work was hugely influential. But note that none (?) of that work had anything to do with the efficacy of programs like Head Start. Moreover, the last 16 years have been very unkind to Heckman’s Nobel contributions. Does anybody bother to teach/learn Heckman’s selection bias stuff in graduate school anymore? I think (contrary opinions welcome!) that this has all been left behind in two ways: the emphasis on randomized trials and the shift to evaluating observational studies using matching methods.

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