Sharon Lerner

Sharon Lerner covers education, work/life, and other issues affecting children and families and conceived of the Prospect's special report on early education. She is a Senior Fellow at Demos, a progressive think tank. 

Recent Articles

As Working Families Take White House Stage, Paid Sick Leave Battle Continues

At the White House Summit on Working Families, one bright spot could be the advance of paid sick leave -- a benefit not offered by most newly created jobs.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
As the White House convenes its summit on the issues facing working families this week, it’s easy to feel discouraged. The proposals topping the agenda–paid leave, flexible work, childcare–are all great ideas. The problem is they’re the same great ideas advocates have been suggesting for years—decades, even. Sure, there’s been more recognition of the need for early education . And it’s huge that, over the past ten years, California , New Jersey and Rhode Island have instituted state paid family leave programs. But the United States still lags behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to making life more livable for working families. Though there’s been some progress, it’s achingly slow. There is one front on which the work/life war has been escalating in recent years, however, one issue that has regularly bubbled over into legislative activity and news stories, while the rest have continued to simmer: paid sick days...

The Fade-Out Debate

Does pre-K pay off for students long-term?

Perhaps the hottest argument around early education centers on whether its benefits ultimately fade out, making it a foolhardy investment. The phenomenon of fade-out is real, according to Andres Hojman, an economist at the University of Chicago. Hojman has documented a loss of at least some of the skills gained in all of the ten early-childhood programs he’s studying. But he says that even though some of the gains disappear, the interventions are still valuable. “We shouldn’t be criticizing ‘fade-out’ as if it were deadly,” Hojman says. That, though, is often what happens when the matter of fade-out comes up in discussions of early-childhood policy, as it did after a particularly dispiriting evaluation of Head Start was released in December 2012. The review, done by the Department of Health and Human Services, found that, by third grade, no demonstrable gains were evident among the students who had attended Head Start. In some quarters, the study...

The Genius of Early Intervention

A conversation with economist James Heckman

James Heckman is the pre-eminent scholar on the economics of early education. Heckman, who won the Nobel Prize in 2000, has focused on how early--childhood interventions affect society at large and the life skills and development of young children. The Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, he has devised ways to measure the economic benefit of preschool, focusing in particular on two programs that have served disadvantaged children: the Perry Preschool, which began in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the 1960s and the Abecedarian, or ABC, Project in North Carolina. Sharon Lerner: How early in a child’s life is too early to intervene? Have you looked at that in home-visiting programs or other programs that are done in infancy? James Heckman: We have a project that shows the long-term effects of interventions starting as early as two months in the life of the child on adult health and other outcomes. We followed them for 35 years, and now...

The Abbott District's Fortunate Few

New Jersey's model program

On a warm Wednesday afternoon this September, Joseph Castillo sat at a small desk in the Early Childhood Center in Orange, New Jersey, making a card for his father. Joseph’s letters, scrawled unevenly in black marker, could have been neater. He might have written out “you” instead of the letter “U.” But then again, Joseph is only four. Although his father, Jairo, a Peruvian immigrant, speaks to him in both Spanish and English, a situation that can delay when a child begins to read and write, Joseph has already begun to do both. “Over the summer, he wrote 15 little books, the kind with superheroes,” Jairo says at pickup time. A separated father of two who works part-time as a carpenter, Jairo may be even prouder of the kindness Joseph displayed on his first day back at school. Having started at the center last year, at age three, Joseph knew how the day would likely unfold; that there would be playing, snack, circle time, and more playing. So...

A Second Chance for the Youngest Americans

The case for universal pre-K

Imagine: What if the country could agree on a way to address the huge unmet needs of young children? What if our solution marked a shift in national priorities, directing substantial money toward high-quality child care and early learning? And what if—and here’s the part that strains credulity—Congress approved such a plan? Well, it already happened. In 1971, back when All in the Family was hitting the airwaves and Muhammad Ali was battling charges of draft dodging, the House and the Senate passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act. Although it was named for its child-care component, the legislation would have created a nationwide system for providing education to young children and was the product of years of debate and planning among child-development experts, women’s rights groups, and the business community. But President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, giving a speech (written by Patrick Buchanan) that warned about the dangers that “communal...