By EDUARDO PORTER
James Heckman is one of the nation’s top economists studying human development. Thirteen years ago, he shared the Nobel for economics. In February, he stood before the annual meeting of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, showed the assembled business executives a chart, and demolished the United States’ entire approach to education.
The chart showed the results of cognitive tests that were first performed in the 1980s on several hundred low-birthweight 3-year-olds, who were then retested at ages 5, 8 and 18.
Children of mothers who had graduated from college scored much higher at age 3 than those whose mothers had dropped out of high school, proof of the advantage for young children of living in rich, stimulating environments.
More surprising is that the difference in cognitive performance was just as big at age 18 as it had been at age 3.
“The gap is there before kids walk into kindergarten,” Mr. Heckman told me. “School neither increases nor reduces it.”
If education is supposed to help redress inequities at birth and improve the lot of disadvantaged children as they grow up, it is not doing its job.
It is not an isolated finding. Another study by Mr. Heckman and Flavio Cunha of the University of Pennsylvania found that the gap in math abilities between rich and poor children was not much different at age 12 than it was at age 6.
The gap is enormous, one of the widest among the 65 countries taking part in the Program for International Student Achievement run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
American students from prosperous backgrounds scored on average 110 points higher on reading tests than disadvantaged students, about the same disparity that exists between the average scores in the United States and Tunisia. It is perhaps the main reason income inequality in the United States is passed down the generations at a much higher rate than in most advanced nations.
That’s a scandal, considering how much the government spends on education: about 5.5 percent of the nation’s economic output in total, from preschool through college.
And it suggests that the angry, worried debate over how to improve the nation’s mediocre education — pitting the teachers’ unions and the advocates of more money for public schools against the champions of school vouchers and standardized tests — is missing the most important part: infants and toddlers.