In Public Education, It’s the Family, Stupid

March 21st, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Public Education and FamiliesI love it when I’m right (a rarity, some would argue), or rather, when there is compelling evidence supporting a controversial position I’ve taken. This post is one of those moments.

I have argued in previous posts that the billions of dollars being spent on public education reform at the school level, if not a waste of money, was, at a minimum, not an efficient or effective use of our resources. This perspective seems even more compelling these days as the federal and state governments are eviscerating school budgets to reduce budget shortfalls (however short-sighted that is in the long run).

Well, now there is good empirical support to back up my claim. A new report by James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago (a school not typically sympathetic to class differences; read this article in Mother Jones for a shorter and more readable description of the findings), offers clear substantiation that “inequality in performance at school is strongly linked to inequality in family environments. Schools do little to reduce or enlarge the gaps in skills that are present when children enter school.”

The differences between socioeconomic classes that Mr. Heckman reported were evident as early as age three. And the deficits were not only present in cognitive abilities, but also the so-called soft skills, which I have been an advocate for teaching, including “motivation, sociability (the ability to work with and cooperate with others), attention, self regulation, self esteem, and the ability to defer gratification and the like.” As Kevin Drum, the writer of the Mother Jones article, notes, early intervention programs “produce children who learn better, develop critical life skills, have fewer problems in childhood and adolescence, commit fewer crimes, earn more money, and just generally live happier, stabler, more productive lives.”

And Mr. Heckman speaks directly to what I have argued should be patently obvious, “Our current policies to reduce achievement gaps ignore these simple truths. America currently places too much emphasis on improving what goes on in schools compared to improving what goes on in families.”

At this moment, the U.S. Department of Education’s so-called Race to the Top (don’t even get me started on that boondoggle!) is spending over $4 billion to reform our public schools (or should I say attempt to reform them). And how much is budgeted for early childhood education? Only $350 million, a mere drop in the bucket in comparison.

America has always been better at throwing money at problems once they arise (think building more prisons vs. reducing the causes of crime) than trying to prevent the problems before they become, well, problems. The difficulty with prevention is that you never really see the problem, so you can’t be sure that there is a problem or that it is being prevented. Plus, the time between prevention and the reduction or absence of a problem is too great to make the connection for politicians who are more concerned with short-term electoral success than long-term social solutions.

In contrast, the connection between an existing problem and a proposed solution is clear, giving politicians the opportunity score points with their constituents for supporting legislation that sure looks good on paper, but will not prove their value until long after they leave office. Of course, the fact that these “solutions du jour” rarely ever actually work is beside the point for our oh-so-concerned representatives.

Mr. Heckman’s argument should satisfy the most fiscally conservative thinker with a long-term perspective (he even proposes private, rather than public, funding). He suggests that after-the-fact remediation of our current educational problems is neither cost effective, economically efficient, nor fiscally prudent in the long run.

In contrast, early intervention is both cost effective and economically efficient. It has better outcomes than remediation because it’s easier to prevent rather than remediate a problem. Early intervention has a percolation effect such that investing in prevention results in later productivity.  And, importantly, the budgets of the early intervention programs can also be reduced because there will be a coincidental rise in education, economic attainment, and, as a result, improved family functioning which was the focus of the early intervention in the first place.  Truly, this rising tide would lift all boats.

What I don’t understand is why clearly intelligent, evidence-based, and seemingly progressive thinkers, such as President Obama, are locked into the groupthink of No Child Left Behind (which he is pushing to have reauthorized) and other public education reform policies that fly in the face of the existing and compelling research and the wisdom of leading educators.

One thing is clear. Until someone with a whole lot of sense, very large cojones (pardon my crassness), and even more power decides to make this shift a crusade, America will continue to violate the Law of Insanity: doing the same thing and expecting different results.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see TV interviews and Prime topic discussions.)

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