Investing in the Education of Adults to Improve the Educability of Children: An Education and Economic Bridge From Krueger to Heckman

Sep 1, 2011 by

Tom Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education

In 1980, I traveled from Heidelberg, Germany, where I was conducting research on adult education and training, to Toronto, Ontario, Canada where I presented an invited address to the members of the National Academy of Education. A revised version of my presentation was later published with the title Literacy and Human Resources Development at Work: Investing in the Education of Adults to Improve the Educability of Children (Human Resources Research Organization, Alexandria, VA: 1983).

The main point of my presentation was that millions of undereducated adults were seeking employment or were already employed in low wage jobs and were in need of increased literacy skills. I argued that employers could offer literacy training which was integrated with work and job skills training and accomplish both the improvement of the literacy skills and job performance of the adults. I further argued that in many cases, through the intergenerational transfer of their improved literacy and the new positive feelings that the newly educated adults would experience about their abilities to learn, this could contribute to the improvement of the educational achievement of the children of these workers.

A decade later I had the opportunity to test the idea that investing in the education of adult language, literacy, or mathematics in the workplace could improve both the skills of the employees and the educability of children. In several manufacturing plants in the Chicago area staff of the Center for Education Resources in Des Plaines, IL had developed literacy
programs integrated with job-related materials and I was asked to serve as an external evaluator of the programs in six plants. I found that not only were large improvements in job-related English language, literacy, or mathematics achieved, but with those workers who were parents, some 40 percent reported that they now read more to their children. This result, which is typically one of the goals of pre-school or family literacy programs, was obtained as a spin-off of the adult literacy programs.

Now, to bring this discussion up to date, I note that President Obama’s new choice for his Council of Economic Advisors, Professor Alan Krueger of Princeton University, has been an advocate for adult education and training. In fact in 2003 he and the economist James Heckman, engaged in a sort of debate in which Heckman downplayed the economic benefits of adult education and training and argued instead for increasing investments in early childhood education (Inequality in America: What Role for Human Capital Policies?, MIT Press, 2003). In particular, Heckman argued that such investments improve emotional, non-cognitive aspects of children’s development and these are the factors that produce the greatest return on investments in early childhood education.

My position is that both Krueger and Heckman are right on target. Early intervention, as Heckman calls for, is necessary for improving children’s educational achievement and life chances. But Krueger is also correct in calling for more investments in adult education and training because this can lead to both better social and economic circumstances for parents. Then, through the intergenerational transfer of cognitive and non-cognitive factors from parents to their children, this can also bring about those traits in children which Heckman finds so valuable.

In a forthcoming paper I have argued that early childhood education depends for its success in large part on what I call early parenthood education (Getting it right from the start: the case for early parenthood education, American Educator, Fall 2011). An important point for considering what I call a multiple-life-cycles education policy is that we need to stop thinking in terms of a single life span, sometimes called lifelong learning, and pay more attention to the intergenerational transfer of language, literacy, cognitive, and non-cognitive aspects of development.

From this viewpoint, when we invest in the education and training of adults, as Krueger calls for, we can improve the educability of children, as Heckman calls for. This way we get double duty from our education dollars. We elevate both adults and their children at the same time. In hard economic times, that seems to make good “cents” to me.

tsticht at

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