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By the numbers: Literacy at all ages counts

By Marie P. Grady

When Dr. James J. Heckman was honored with the Nobel Prize for economics in 2000, his official biography recounted not only a life inspired by the pursuit of knowledge but his early years of awakening in the Deep South.

Heckman, the chief speaker at a literacy conference in Springfield last month, grew up a stone's throw from the University of Chicago, in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood. But when he was 12 years old, his family moved to Kentucky and later to Oklahoma.

"My brief time in the South and a later trip to the Deep South in the early 1960s with my Nigerian college roommate left lasting impressions on me as I encountered the system of racial discrimination known as 'Jim Crow' in its final manifestation. The separate water fountains, park benches, bathrooms and restaurants of the Jim Crow South startled me. These experiences motivated my lifelong study of the status of African-Americans, and the sources of improvement in that status."

As Heckman no doubt knows, the legacy of the Jim Crow South remains with us today. We can all drink from the same water fountains now, and sit anywhere there is an open seat on a bus, but the idea that we are all equal is a dream, or, in the parlance of an economist, a statistical fallacy.

Education is still the line in the sand between the haves and the have nots.

The numbers tell the story.

Half of high school students fail to graduate in urban centers, the majority Latino or black.

The great majority of the poor: Latino or black.

Who is to blame? Does it matter? We all pay in the end.

That is why it would be unfortunate if only part of this Nobel Laureate's speech at a Nov. 19 conference on literacy in Springfield would be taken as gospel. At this conference, called "Building a Better Workforce," Heckman told about 200 business people that an investment in early education yields a much greater bang for the buck than an investment in adolescent or adult education.

In fact, comparatively, Heckman said, many programs for students later in life had a limited track record in terms of yields on investments.

Heckman, the economist measuring outcomes by the numbers, was right. And that is probably why this state's investment in early education is more than 17 times its investment in adult education. But Heckman, the scientist and the man, also acknowledged that adolescent and adult education services are needed and should be enhanced to achieve better results because learning gains often take longer.

The business and political leaders in the audience that day already see the results of the adult literacy gap. The region recently led the state for the percentage increase in unfilled jobs, partly because the workforce does not have the education or skills to fill them.

In my travels, I have met or heard about adult education students who go on to get, not only GEDs, but higher education. They become nurses, or social workers or entrepreneurs. As a result, their children are inspired to do more.

I also know that more than 900 youths were placed in jobs or internships this year, thanks to a variety of businesses, grants and the work of Brad Sperry and Kathryn Kirby of the Regional Employment Board. Without those opportunities, many would be simply dropouts with no future.

Heckman is a visionary, particularly in his embrace of early education, but the challenge of all visionaries is that they are at least a generation ahead of their time. While we embrace the visionary's vision, we must not forget the world we live in.

The vision of providing early education to all is essential to erasing the great class divide in this country. However, the vision of education is myopic if it is limited to the children. Children need support at home to excel and that means parents need an education of their own.

If, a generation ago, we had heeded Heckman's message, perhaps we would not be in this state. But we didn't, and so, we must deal with the problem at its core and the problem as it is now, while planning for the future.

By the numbers, the economist Heckman long ago calculated that investments in early childhood education yield the greatest return. By life experience, Heckman also knows that some returns, however limited at the outset, reap their own rewards down the line, for individuals, families and society.

After hearing a panel speak about the value of adult education to the business community, Heckman wanted to learn more.

That's the mark of a great economist and a human being who recognizes that knowledge is limitless. It should be the demarcation line for policy makers when deciding who is left on the other side of the bottom line.

Marie P. Grady is director of the Literacy Works Project of the Hampden County Regional Employment Board. She can be reached at or at 755-1367.