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The Role Of Family In Good Education Is Really Important: James Heckman

James Heckman, a Nobel laureate, says parents of children attending private schools are highly motivated and want to see their kids succeed

Published: Aug 4, 2014
Image: Rolf H. Seyboldt

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 (Nobel in Economics). In an interview to Forbes India, he speaks on the various aspects of education.

Q. 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?

Engaging the private sector is always a good idea, but you have to make sure that it is fully responsive to a particular question. From my own experience in the US, I can say 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. It can also generate funds and support outside the government. So, not only can it communicate information about diverse groups’ interests, but it can also help finance those programmes and raise support apart from shaping the agenda in a way that is fully responsive to different elements of society.  


Q. In India, the poor have shown an increasing preference for paying higher fees and shifting their children to private schools. This is what prompted the government to say that private schools have to take in a huge diverse population from different backgrounds. Is it a good approach when 90 percent of the schools are run by the state?
I don't want to pretend to be an expert on the Indian education (system). 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, 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.


Q. You talked about this problem existing across the world...
One thing we have found in American education and education in Chile and other countries is that when the private and public sectors coexist, in many cases, the private sector can help the public sector become more responsive to 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 the 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.


Q. When you spoke about selectivity, you seem to think that private schools may or may not necessarily be 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 maybe 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.

Q. As an aside, are you aware of Amy Chua's Tiger Mom concept? Do you think it has a huge impact on performances of students coming from certain communities?

Yeah, I think it is. I know she goes to extremes to prove her theory. There is a difference that we sometimes make 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… 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 homes that are very highly motivated.

Providing disadvantaged students with the same advantages of advantaged students can reduce the gap in their test scores
Image: Getty Images
Providing disadvantaged students with the same advantages of advantaged students can reduce the gap in their test scores

Q. Can you tell us 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 why Asian-American children, including 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 belonged to families that were staying with the kids, motivating the children 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 advantages of one culture or one ethnic group over another is precisely that.
 
Q. 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 certain kind of manual labour. They don't have any aspirations, maybe because they think there is no chance for their children in other occupations. Hence, a part of the whole notion has been to educate those parents about the value of higher education.

Q. How much does the quality of early education impact how well an individual does in life?

I have seen from US data and 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 play 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 test scores at age five or six is perhaps 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 it’s not all set by the genes.

 
Q. Should students be made to appear for 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 throughout their lifetime. And the reason why it is useful is that it tells teachers and parents areas in which the child lags behind and needs special effort. But having said that, we also need broader measures to decide what the child's achievements are. So we want to go beyond the notion of a test score or reading or writing (skills) and 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.
 
Q. 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 it comes to these very young preschools, a ratio of three children per teacher is about the right one. I am talking about kids who are aged one and are very demanding. Therefore, you can’t really supervise them. However, when you get to higher levels of education, class sizes can grow. The evidence on class size though is a bit weak. Schools in the northeast of Brazil did not even have a roof over their heads. They imagined trees and had no textbooks. So, spending more money on those schools turned out to be a very good thing. They had a large number of students, but very few 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… there, large classrooms were not the problem and neither were the resources. It was what happened to the kids when they walked into the classroom from the aspect of student discipline and so on. The focus on the size of the class may have been overstated.

Q. Can you elaborate on that?
Some 15 years ago, I did some calculations and suggested that if you reduced the teacher-pupil ratio by the amount suggested in certain influential studies, 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 money to the children and put it in the bank than to give them 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.
 
Q. Just to shift the field, I think you have been a bit of a sceptic 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 the same as what some other child is getting. The child who gets poor resources by what is basically a luck of the draw is very bright. He possibly has a great future but isn't able to realise it. Then the question is if there is insurance against this kind of possibility? If there can be, you can literally imagine a market where foetuses would be buying insurance against having bad parents. But that market doesn't exist. The point is that there is a kind of market failure which is related to accidental birth and 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.

Q. That's a very interesting way of putting it...
What I said is the result of what many people, including my former colleague, the 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, those living in a very rural area in India or China or South America, cannot afford or do not have the resources or even access to education for their children. So, there is a role for the government in providing resources. Having said that, the private sector still has a huge role to make sure that the resources are used effectively.

Q. In India, we are debating a law about the value of specific quotas especially in higher education, jobs and other things 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 in which I participated. In Brazil, they started putting affirmative action in place, in the sense that blacks would be given privileges to go to medical schools, professional schools and it worked. Brazil had largely been racially unconscious in the sense that they were many poor blacks and many poor whites too. There were more blacks than whites, but there were an awful lot of whites in poverty as well. As you created a level of racial consciousness, it turned out that many people who looked very European, were trying to find out if they had one thirty second black so that 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 denies dignity to people. But I think reverse discrimination denies dignity too.
 
Q. 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. Inequality starts really early in life and if we want any kind of affirmative action, it is probably helping the disadvantaged-white, black, high caste, low caste and so on. The idea of giving 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 cases is that unqualified people are promoted to positions that they cannot satisfy and that creates negative image which can actually undo the intentions. 

(This story appears in the 08 August, 2014 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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