Professor James J. Heckman is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, where he also serves as Professor in the University of Chicago’s Law School and Harris School of Public Policy. In 2000, Professor Heckman won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (more commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics). In this interview he speaks to Forbes India on various aspects of education.
In India we have launched the right to education where we are trying to put children from poor families into good schools run by the private sector. Do you think this kind of approach will work?
I think engaging the private sector is always a good idea but I also think that you have to make sure that the private sector is fully responsive to a particular question. We know from my own experience in US that the private sector in early childhood education programmes can help respond to cultural, social and parental religious values that would adapt programmes to be where the children and parents want to be. The private sector can also generate funds and support outside the government. So not only can it communicate information about diverse groups interest but it can also help finance those programs and raise support and also kind of shape the agenda in a way that is fully responsive to different elements of the society.
In India the poor have shown an increasing preference for paying a higher fees and shifting their children to private schools and this is what prompted the government to say that private schools have to take in a huge diverse population from different background both at the early education stage and later. Is it a good approach when 90% of the schools are actually run by the state?
I don’t want to pretend to be an expert on the Indian education. But I have seen some of the studies and I don’t think if they completely control for the issue of selectivity, which is that children attending private schools have parents who are more motivated. That is a problem that runs throughout the world and not just in India. But it does seem like the private schools are doing a better job, at least superficially, but again I haven’t studied the problem in depth.
You talked about this problem running throughout the world…
Look one thing we have found in American education and education in Chile and other countries is that when the private sector and the public sector coexist, in many cases the private sector can help the public sector become more responsive to the children. And so they compete. In that sense competition can promote quality in both public and private sector. John Hicks the famous economist talked about the benefits of monopoly. He said that benefit of monopoly was that a monopolist can live a quiet life. The monopolist doesn’t have to compete and I think that is probably equally true in education as it is in steel or any other activity.
When you spoke about selectivity you seem to think that private schools may or may not be necessarily better but the kind of students that self select themselves into these schools may be giving them better results. Is that what you are trying to say?
Oh yes. The motivated parents are the ones trying to achieve better results for their children. And we know that parenting is an important part of success of schools. Good parenting can be a very powerful factor leading to the success of the child and may be we attribute too much credit to the school attended by the child and probably underestimate the powerful role of the parent and the motivation of the parent.
As an aside, are you aware of the Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom concept. Do you think it has a huge impact in the kind of student performances of children coming from certain communities?
Yeah, I think it is. I know she goes to extremes in proving her theory. There is a difference that we make sometimes between an authoritarian mother and an authoritative mother. And I think tiger mom sounds a little too authoritarian. What you want is the mother to be informed and provide guidance to the child and I think that is an important distinction. If you look at Asian communities in the United States, for example Indian or Chinese communities, a lot of those children come from those homes that are very highly motivated.
Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
James Flynn talked about the Flynn effect, where each generation has a higher score and IQ than the previous one, sometimes by a substantial amount. He asked the question that why was it that Asian American children that included Japanese Americans, Indian Americans and Chinese Americans, were doing so well in school? The initial feeling was that there was some superiority in terms of IQ of the Asian population. But when Flynn looked at the data he found that these children were more motivated. They were working harder, were doing more homework, their parents co-operated with them and so forth. So I don’t know if they were tiger moms but they were families that were staying with the kids, motivating the kids and that is really part of what gave the culture. So the role of the family is really important. And I think some of the advantage of one culture or one ethnic group over another is precisely that.
What do you mean by that?
For example in the United States now, we have many children from Mexican-American families and for whatever reason the value placed on education is much lower. It is not uncommon to allow their children to drop out of school. They see the role of their child as following them, as doing a certain kind of manual labour. They don’t have any aspirations, may be because that they think there is no chance for their children in those other occupations. Hence, a part of the whole notion has been to educate those parents about the value of higher education.
How much does the quality of early education impact how well an individual does in life?
Let me tell you that I have seen from US data and I think this may be true in other countries, that the gap in achievement tests scores that is present when people leave secondary school, most of that gap is present when they enter school and kindergarten. So the early preschool years are playing a huge role. And you say, well maybe that is genetics, the family is smarter. There are more advantaged parents and they have more advantaged children, and better performing children and the gap you see in tests scores at age six or age five is may be a genetic gap. That is when the intervention studies come along and show that you can close a lot of that gap by essentially giving disadvantaged families some of the same advantages that advantaged children have. So it is not purely genetic. That’s an old idea, in fact there is lot of work showing that environment plays a big role. Genes play a role, but its not all set by the genes.
Should students be given exams from a
very young age? Is there some research on that?
I would say yes because you want to be able to monitor and measure children through out their life time. And the reason why it is useful is it guides teachers and the parents about where the child is behind and needs special effort. But having said that, we also need broader measures of what a child’s achievement is. So we want to go beyond just the notion of a test score or reading or writing, but to have a broader inventory of things like what is sometimes called non-cognitive or character skills. Character plays a very important role and we can shape characters, parents shape characters, schools shape characters, peers shape characters and we have a way to measure it.
How important is class size when it comes to delivering education? How small or big should a class be?
The younger the child, the smaller the class size should be. So when you get to these very young preschools, it seems like a ratio of three children per one teacher is about the right size. I am talking about kids one year of age who are very demanding, so you really cant supervise them. However, when you get to higher levels of education, class sizes can grow and there the evidence on class size is a little bit weaker. Schools in the north east of Brazil did not even have a roof over their heads. They imagined trees, they had no text books. So spending more money on those schools turned out to be a very good thing. They had a huge number of students and a very small number of teachers. So smaller classes and more resources played a huge role in increasing the Brazilian quality of schooling. But if you were to move that discussion to Sao Paulo, just go south into a more urban area, then large classrooms per say were not the problem, even resources per say weren’t the problem. It was typically what happened to the kids when they walked into the classroom from the aspect of student disciple and so on, that was the problem. So I think the focus in the past has been on the class size and that may have been overstated.
Can you elaborate on that?
Some 15 years back I did some calculations and what we suggested was that if you reduced the teacher pupil ratio by the amount suggested in certain influential studies, what happened was you boosted the incomes of the children. But if you ask that did it pay for itself in terms of what the increased teachers salaries were and the increased numbers of schools that came with reducing pupil teacher ratio, it did not. It was actually more efficient to give the children money and put it in the bank than it was to give the children few more teachers or have more classroom size. So, I would say the more important thing is creating efficiency within the school system than just having fewer students per teacher.
Just to shift the field, I think you have been a bit of a skeptic on the ability of the markets ultimately delivering the best results, even though you come from the Chicago School…
Be careful now. Suppose a child is born into a poor family. The resources available to that child are not to the same extent as to what some other child is getting. And that child who gets poor resources by what is basically a luck of the draw is very bright. He had a great future possibly but isn’t able to realise it. Then the question is that is there insurance against this kind of possibility? If there can be, you can literally imagine a market where fetuses would be buying insurance against having bad parents. But that market doesn’t exist and the point is that there is a kind of market failure which is related to the accidental birth and I think that is a very traditional Chicago argument that the parents play a big role and the child cannot control the families that they are born into.
That’s a very interesting way of putting it…
What I said is the result of what many people including my former colleague now deceased Milton Friedman, had to say. Friedman was a very strong believer in public education and that has been forgotten. As a very poor child, he was the beneficiary of public school education. The point you want to make a distinction on is that education provides a very basic framework for human capability. Adam Smith said that himself. So, this is not at odd with any things in economics. And the point is, very poor parents, somebody living in a very rural area in India or China for that South America, it may well be that the parent cant afford or doesn’t have the resources or even access to education for his children. So there is a role for government in providing resources. But having said that there is still a huge role for the private sector in making sure that the resources are used effectively.
In India, we are debating a law about the value of specific quotas especially in higher education, jobs and other thing,s as opposed to affirmative action where a company or a higher educational institution is expected to seek diversity rather than actually fill up quotas. What is the global experience on this front?
There was a similar debate in Brazil and I actually participated in that debate. In Brazil they started putting affirmative action in place, in the sense that blacks would be given privileges to go to medical school, professional schools and they worked. And what also happened is that Brazil had largely been racially unconscious in the sense that they were many poor blacks but there were many poor whites too. True, there were more blacks than probably white but there were awful lot of whites in poverty as well. Now, what happened is as you created a level of racial consciousness, it turned out that many people who looked very European, once the orders were given were actually trying to find out evidence if they had one thirty second black, so they could somehow claim credibility. So I worry, I definitely don’t like discrimination. And discrimination is a serious thing. It is very harmful, it just denies dignity to people. But I think reverse discrimination also denies dignity too.
Can you elaborate on that?
We want a society that doesn’t discriminate so I don’t know if tilting the scale in another direction is so good either. I think we want fairness. But I would say this that inequality starts really early in life and if we want any kind of affirmative action then it is probably helping the disadvantaged-white, black, high caste, low caste and so on. I think probably the idea of giving the skills and capabilities to people that allow them to flourish is probably a much better policy than kind of mandating equality in the face of gaps in skills. And I am afraid what happens in some case is that unqualified people are promoted at positions that they can not satisfy and that creates negative image which can actually undo the intentions.
The article originally appeared in the Forbes India magazine edition