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What's Not On The Test: The Overlooked Factors That Determine Success

New research suggests that early investments in children's education can have benefits that last for more than one generation.
New research suggests that early investments in children's education can have benefits that last for more than one generation.

In the early 1990s, James Heckman traveled to Corpus Christi, Texas. He was there to see something that had been described to him as a miracle. It was a program for students who had dropped out of high school.

He learned that the program took high school dropouts and converted them into high school graduates within a few months. "I said, 'Wow, this is amazing,'" Heckman recalls.

The program that gave young people a second chance is now known widely across the country. It's called the GED.

Heckman, an economics professor at the University of Chicago and a Nobel laureate, wanted to know whether, on average, people with a GED were as successful as people with a high school diploma. He started by looking at their test scores.

"What really surprised me was their test scores were virtually the same," he says.

Within a few months, the GED program was allowing students to catch up with peers who had spent years in high school. But then Heckman looked further: Were GED grads holding on to jobs? In long-term relationships? Staying out of trouble?

The short answer was, no.

What was going on here? Why were GED recipients struggling so much more as adults if they had the same test scores as high school graduates?

This week, we untangle the mystery that James Heckman discovered in Corpus Christi, and the astounding implications of his findings for public policy.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel, and Thomas Lu. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain.

Additional Resources:

"Intergenerational and intragenerational externalities of the Perry Preschool Program," HCEO Working Paper by James J. Heckman and Ganesh Karapakula, 2019.

The Myth of Achievement Tests: The GED and the Role of Character in American Life ,edited by James J. Heckman, John Eric Humphries, and Tim Kautz, 2014.

"Quantifying the Life-cycle Benefits of a Prototypical Early Childhood Program," by Jorge Luis García, James J. Heckman, Duncan Ermini Leaf and María José Prados, 2017.

"Understanding the Mechanisms Through Which an Influential Early Childhood Program Boosted Adult Outcomes," by James Heckman, Rodrigo Pinto, and Peter Savelyev in the American Economic Review, 2013.

"Effects of the Tennessee Prekindergarten Program on Children's Achievement and Behavior Through Third Grade," by Mark W. Lipsey, Dale C.Farran and Kelley Durkin in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 2018.

"Our Proud Heritage: Two Teachers Look Back—The Ypsilanti Perry Preschool, Part I," by Louise Derman-Sparks and Evelyn K. Moore, 2016.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.