Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Making The Box Bigger

Yesterday, President Obama unveiled his plans for education. To his credit, he talked about the need to reward good teachers and remove bad ones. And to expand charter schools. Neither proposal is all that bold or ground breaking, but at least he's willing to talk about subjects that Democrats--in deference to teachers unions--have usually refused to even bring to the table. However, I am still skeptical about his ability to turn this talk into concrete actions. Leaders with a far better record of reforming institutions--Rudy Giuliani for example--have found their best laid plans for school reform scuttled on the shoals of the entrenched educational bureaucracies and interest groups.

I also wonder if some of his other education plans are another case of misdiagnosing the real cause of the problem. To solve our economic problems, he claims the most important action is to control rising health care costs. But there's a lot of question whether that is actually the root of our current problem or the most pressing factor in our future economic growth.

There's no dispute that our current education system is not delivering the results that we expect or need. Two of the proposals that President Obama revealed to improve the system are getting children into school sooner and having more people go to college. Again, I question whether these are really the right solutions to the problem.

In regard to early childhood education, Mr. Obama seems to believe that weighing the benefits against the costs make it an open and shut case.

Studies show that children in these programs are more likely to score higher in reading and math, more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, more likely to hold a job, and more likely to earn more in that job. For every dollar we invest in these programs, we get nearly ten dollars back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health costs, and less crime. That is why the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act I signed into law invests $5 billion in growing Early Head Start and Head Start, expanding access to quality child care for 150,000 more children from working families, and doing more for children with special needs. And it is why we are going to offer 55,000 first-time parents regular visits from trained nurses to help make sure their children are healthy and prepare them for school and life.

While it's true that there are many studies that demonstrate the benefits of ECE, there are also many studies that question the real impact. And some of the studies that are cited by ECE supporters don't hold up to rigorous analysis. The study cited by President Obama showing a 10 to 1 return on investment is one example:

The research design simply "matched" children whose parents chose to participate in the CPC program with those who did not. It's not a random-assignment study, which means that subtle differences between the two groups--which can easily go undetected by survey responses, income data, and other rough measures --might explain all differences between the two populations. There is absolutely no way to determine if the program had an impact or the families who participated were different from those who did not participate.

ECE might benefit some children in some circumstances. But it hasn't been proven to be the educational panacea that many of its supporters claim it to be. It's also worth asking again if one of the biggest reasons that our current system is failing is that children aren't going to school early enough. While it's not always reasonable (given demographic differences) to compare practices and results across countries, it is interesting to note that in Finland--a country that regularly kicks our butt as badly on educational testing as they do Nordic combined skiing--children typically don't start school until they are seven.

Another widely held assumption repeated by Mr. Obama yesterday is that the more people we have graduate from college the better.

The fifth part of America's education strategy is providing every American with a quality higher education--whether it's college or technical training. Never has a college degree been more important. And never has it been more expensive. At a time when so many of our families are bearing enormous economic burdens, the rising cost of tuition threatens to shatter dreams. That is why will simplify federal college assistance forms so it doesn't take a PhD to apply for financial aid. And that is why we are already taking steps to make college or technical training affordable.

Now, he did mention college and technical training, but the emphasis in his plan--and, as near as I can tell, in the spending--is focused on college. I would argue that a greater problem facing the country is not that enough people don't go to college, but that there aren't enough viable alternatives available for those for whom college is not the best path.

No one will argue that we need a better educated workforce in order to compete. But is the real problem that we don't have enough people going to college or that many of those who currently do graduate lack the skills, mindset, and capacity for critical thinking and problem solving that businesses require?

Like putting more money in the system, simply putting more students into the top of college funnel doesn't do anything to change the product that comes out the bottom. Yes, his plan includes proposals to help more people stay in college to graduate, but there's not much about making sure they do so prepared for the challenging and competitive environment of the real world.

Overall, the education plan unveiled yesterday is a mixed bag. Some rays of hope with merit pay, charter schools, and the need for parental responsibility:

So, yes, we need more money. Yes, we need more reform. Yes, we need to hold ourselves more accountable for every dollar we spend. But there is one more ingredient I want to talk about. The bottom line is that no government policies will make any difference unless we also hold ourselves more accountable as parents. Because government, no matter how wise or efficient, cannot turn off the TV or put away the video games. Teachers, no matter how dedicated or effective, cannot make sure your children leave for school on time and do their homework when they get back at night. These are things only a parent can do. These are things that our parents must do.

But continuing to focus on more of the same and sooner (both in terms of money and student participation) as the ultimate solutions to our education problems is not enough of a change from the past to convince me that he's interested in implementing real reform.

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