Improving education: What really works?

Gaps in educational achievement open early

Parenting is more important than teaching in how well children do in school and in life, according to a researcher named James J. Heckman.  He wrote a research paper saying that the best way to help poor children is to get parents into voluntary programs that help children acquire life skills at a very young age.

… Gaps arise early and persist. Schools do little to bridge these gaps even though the quality of schooling attended varies greatly across social classes. Much evidence tells the same story as Figure 1. Gaps in test scores classified by social and economic status of the family emerge at early ages, before schooling starts, and they persist. Similar gaps emerge and persist in indices of soft skills classified by social and economic status. Again, schooling does little to widen or narrow these gaps. … …

A strategy that places greater emphasis on parenting resources directed to the early years is a strategy that prevents rather than remediates problems. It supplements families and makes them active participants in the process of child development.

Remediation strategies as currently implemented are much less effective. This is the flip side of the argument for early intervention. Many skills that are malleable in the early years are much less so in the teenage years. As a consequence, remediating academic and social deficits in the teenage years is much more costly….For high quality early childhood interventions, there are none of the trade-offs between equity and efficiency that plague most public policies. Early interventions produce broadly based benefits and reduce social and economic inequality. At the same time they promote productivity and economic efficiency. They are both fair and efficient.

via Building Better Kids.

Heckman cited something called the Perry preschool program, which targeted poor, low IQ African-American preschoolers in a city outside Detroit.  The children were taught to plan, executive and evaluate projects on a daily basis.  They were taught social skills.  The program staff visited and advised parents on how to help their children do better.

Because the children were reached early in life, when their minds and attitudes were malleable, the program’s benefits carried on through life – much more so that programs aimed to teenagers or young adults.

Heckman pointed out that while there have been successful programs of early childhood intervention, there is a lot to be learned about what works and what doesn’t.  He said it is important that the programs be voluntary and that different things be tried.  He would like to see non-profit private foundations engaged in experimentation.  (The implication I draw is that they should do this rather than pushing pre-conceived ideas, but he doesn’t actually say this).

The Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University, after a survey of the research, also concluded that early childhood education is important, but they also saw room for improvement in the regular school program.  Here is the unit’s summary of what research has found:

Class sizes and child-teacher ratios must be kept low.

Teachers must be highly qualified, with at least a bachelor’s degree and with specialized training in early education, and must be paid well.

Curricula must be intellectually rich and sufficiently broad to address children’s developmental needs in all domains.

Programs must have an infrastructure adequate to support best practices, professional development, and ongoing evaluation and accountability.

Programs must engage in an active partnership with parents and accommodate their needs, including their needs for child care.

Programs should start no later than age three.

Resources should be focused primarily on disadvantaged children.

The existing array of public school, Head Start, and private programs all can be used, but both standards and resources must be substantially increased to produce the desired results.

via School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence.

The big problem I see is that early childhood intervention programs are likely to cost a lot of money.  Individual attention doesn’t come cheap.  Do we Americans as a society care enough to pay that money? Or would we rather just blame the teachers, the parents and the children?

Would well-off parents tolerate educational resources being diverted from their children to the children of disadvantaged parents?  I doubt it.  It is human nature to put the welfare of your own children above all else.  And it is the well-off, not the disadvantaged, who call the shots in our society.

Another thing:  All these things would be easier to accomplish if children could expect to graduate from school into a full-employment, high-wage economy in which a high school diploma was a ticket to a good, well-paying job.

None of this is meant to say that it is impossible to help the children of poor parents do better – only that it is going to be very, very hard.

Click on The American Family in Black and White PDF for James Heckman’s complete paper.

Click on School Reform Proposals: the Research Evidence for the complete Arizona State University report.

Click on Teachers and Incentives, Positive and Negative for a thoughtful comment by someone with six years’ experience as a board member of a charter school.

Click on How Bill Gates misinterprets ed facts for a debunking of widely-held beliefs about the U.S. education system. [Added 3/18/11].

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