Perry Preschool Project from N.P.R.

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When economist James Heckman was studying the effects of job training  programs on unskilled young workers, he found a mystery.

He was comparing a group of workers that had gone through a job training  program with a group that hadn’t. And he found that, at best, the  training program did nothing to help the workers get better jobs. In  some cases, the training program even made the workers worse off.

The problem was that  the students in the training program couldn’t learn what they were being taught. They lacked an  important set of skills which would enable them to learn new things.  Heckman, a Nobel-Prize-winning economist, calls these soft skills.

You  might not think of soft skills as skills at all. They involve things  like being able to pay attention and focus, being curious and open to  new experiences, and being able  to control your temper and not get  frustrated.

All  these soft skills are very important in getting a job. And Heckman  discovered that you don’t get them in high school, or in middle school,  or even in elementary school. You get them in preschool.

And that, according to Heckman, makes preschool one of the most effective job-training programs out there.

As  evidence, he points to the Perry Preschool Project, an experiment done  in the early 1960s in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Researchers took a bunch of 3- and 4-year-old kids from poor families and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. The kids in  one group just lived their regular lives. And the kids in the other  group went to preschool for two hours a day,  five days a week.

After preschool, both groups went into the same regular Ypsilanti public school system and grew up side by side into adulthood.

Yet  when researchers followed up with the kids as adults, they found huge  differences. At age 27, the boys who had – almost two decades earlier – gone to preschool were now half as likely to be arrested and earned  50 percent more in salary that those who didn’t.

And  that wasn’t all. At 27, girls who went to preschool were 50 percent more  likely to have a savings account and 20 percent more likely to have a car. In  general, the preschool kids got sick less often, were unemployed less  often, and went to jail less often. Since then, many other studies have  reported similar findings.

These  results made me think: What is going on in preschool?

So I visited the Co-Op School, a preschool in Brooklyn. Eliza Cutler, a teacher there, said the kids do a lot of the same things the Perry Preschool  kids did back in the 60s: They play, they paint, they build with blocks,  and they nap.

If you didn’t know where to look, you wouldn’t see the job skills they’re learning.

Yet  they are learning valuable skills: how to resolve conflicts, how to  share, how to negotiate, how to talk things out. These are skills that they need to  make it through a day of preschool now. And they are skills they will  need to make it through a day of work when they’re 30.

If  they learn these skills now, they’ll have them for the rest of their  lives. But research shows that if they don’t learn them now, it becomes  harder and harder as they get older. By the time the time they’re in a  job training program in their twenties, it’s often too late.

Heckman  is an economist so he thinks about this as a cost-benefit analysis. To  him, the message is clear: If you want 21 year-olds to have jobs, the best  time to train them is in the first few years of life.