Life Cycles Education Policy:
Adult Education Makes
a Good Economic Development Strategy
February 22, 2006
Nobel Prize economist James J. Heckman was interviewed in June of 2005
by the Minneapolis branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. He was asked about
making the case for early childhood education (ECE) as an economic development
In his response, Heckman downplayed the effects of ECE on cognitive
skills, and instead stated, " Enriched early intervention programs
targeted to disadvantaged children have had their biggest effect on
noncognitive skills: motivation, self-control and time preference.
We know that there's a scientific basis for this finding. The prefrontal
which is a center of these noncognitive skills, matures late.
The executive function, the very definition of ourselves as
way we motivate
ourselves, these things are malleable until quite late stages—into
the 20s, according to research by neuroscientists. This means
that in principle we can modify these behaviors. Noncognitive skills are
of a number of socioeconomic measures (crime, teenage pregnancy,
education and the like…. Kids in the Perry Preschool Program, an
early childhood intervention, are much more successful than similar kids
intervention even though their IQs are no higher. And the same
is true of many such
There is a lot of research on such programs."
Heckman also considered that by starting early enough with ECE it may
be possible to actually raise the IQs of disadvantaged children. In this
regard he cited the Abcediarian program aimed at disadvantaged children
and which starts at 3 or 4 months after the children are born and intervenes
up to age 8 in some cases.
Interestingly, in other economic analyses, Lynch (2004) also cited the
research on the Perry Preschool and Abcediarian projects, along
with other ECE programs, as supporting the importance of ECE preschool
Lynch states that many of these early education childhood programs " also
provide adult education and parenting classes for the parents of young
children." (p vii). This suggests that perhaps a significant percentage
of the benefits that early childhood education programs produce might result
from the effects of adult parenting and literacy education activities that
take place in these programs.
Indeed, recent research by Morrison, Bachman, & Connor (2005) has
questioned the effectiveness of both childcare and preschool programs that
do not focus on improving parenting skills. Concerning childcare, they
say, "Overall, parenting appears to be a more important source of
influence on children’s development than is childcare. … the
contribution of parenting was about three to four times greater than that
of early childcare. …high-quality childcare will not offset the negative
effect of poor parenting, and poor-quality childcare will not prevent success
for children with effective parents." (pp. 48,49).
The fact that Heckman points to the importance of noncognitive skills
as important outcomes of preschool, such as increasing children’s
motivation for and interest in education, is also suggestive of the importance
of adult education in contributing to the cost-benefits of ECE. Numerous
studies of adult basic education (ABE) have found that noncognitive skills
are the major outcomes of ABE. Almost universally, studies of ABE outcomes
report that adults feel better about themselves, they overcome learned
helplessness, they feel more motivated to succeed in life, and, importantly,
these positive noncognitive skills often modify adults’ behaviors with their children.
In research with Wider Opportunities for Women, Sandra Van Fossen and
I found that mothers enrolled in basic skills programs reported that they
spoke more with their children about school, they read to them more, they
took them to the library more and so forth (Van Fossen & Sticht, 1991).
In one visit to a single mother’s home, the mother’s second
grader said, "I do my homework just like Mommy"… and thrust
his homework into the researcher’s hand. This type of noncognitive
skill development in the child was obtained for free as a spin-off of an
adult basic skills program.
This type of intergenerational transfer of noncognitive skills from parents
to their children in adult basic education and early childhood education
programs means that more attention needs to be paid to the role of adult
education in contributing to the cost-benefits of both ABE and ECE.
Extensive research also shows that adult’s cognitive, language,
and literacy skills can be transferred intergenerationally to their children.
Hart & Risley (1995) present extensive data showing how the oral language
skills of parents in professional, working class, and welfare homes are
used to transfer thinking, language, and literacy skills to their children.
Because of the importance of adult basic education in promoting the intergenerational
transfer of both cognitive and noncognitive skills from parents to their
children, education policy needs to be focused not just on one child’s
life cycle, but on the life cycles of both adults and their children.
A "Life Cycles" policy for education explicitly recognizes that
educational policies do not affect only one generation but through the
intergenerational transfer of motivation, language, and literacy they affect
many cycles of lives across generations (see also Sticht, 1983). For this
reason governments need to invest in adult literacy and lifelong education
with the understanding that this investment will not only provide returns
in terms of increased productivity, health, and civic participation on
the part of the adults, but also with the understanding that the investment
in the education of adults may also produce returns in the increased educability
of the adult’s children. Good adult education in parenting is the
backbone of good preschool education.
Today we have a better understanding that poorly educated children are
the source of adult functional illiteracy, and functionally illiterate
adults are the source of poorly educated children. The hope is that through
education based on a Life Cycles policy, in which children are guaranteed
their right to educated parents, the vicious intergenerational cycles of
functional illiteracy can be stopped at their sources.
Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful
differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes
Lynch, R. (2004). Exceptional Returns: Economic, Fiscal and Social
Benefits of Investment in Early Childhood Development. Washington, DC:
Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epinet.org)
Minneapolis Federal Reserve (2005, June). Interview with James. J.
Morrison, F., Bachman, H, & Connor, C. (2005). Improving Literacy
in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Sticht, T. G. (1983, February). Literacy and Human Resources Development
Work: Investing in the Education of Adults to Improve the Educability
of Children. Alexandria, VA: Human Resources Research Organization.
Van Fossen, S. & Sticht, T. (1991, July). Teach the Mother and
Child: Results of the Intergenerational Literacy Action Research
Project of Wider Opportunities for Women. Washington, DC: Wider
Opportunities for Women.
Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
2062 Valley View Blvd.
El Cajon, CA 92019-2059
Tel/fax: (619) 444-9133