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Bad news -- and good news -- on education policy

Kevin Drum speaks some hard truths on education and poverty policy:

I'm going to get the ed people mad at me again -- and I guess I'll add the poverty people too this time -- but I continue to think that the biggest problem here is simply that no one has any really compelling answers. Movies like Waiting for Superman (which I haven't seen), along with an endless stream of credulous punditry, keep suggesting that the answers are out there if only we'll fund them and take them seriously. But they aren't. Charter schools are great, but they're no panacea. (Not yet, anyway. Maybe someday after we figure out which ones work.) High-stakes testing might be a necessary evil, but it hasn't proven to have any long-term value yet either. Etc. You can go down the list of every ed reform every touted, and they either can't scale up, turn out to have ambiguous results when proper studies are done, or simply wash out over time. ...

So is the answer is to address concentrated poverty? Sure. Except that, if anything, attempts to address poverty have a worse track record than attempts to improve education. Hell, attempts to address poverty have such a bad track record that even credulous pundits rarely bother writing about it anymore. Nobody really seems to have any compelling answers, and for about 90% of the country it's just too easy to ignore the problem entirely. They won't phrase it quite this way, of course, but basically they're willing to let the cities rot.

I would really, really like someone to tell me I'm wrong. So far, though, no one has. At least, not to my satisfaction. But I'm willing to be schooled if anyone thinks I'm missing the big picture here.

That mostly describes my thinking, too. I'm up for trying things like merit pay and charter schools, but their supporters way oversell their benefits. As of now, actually, we're not entirely sure they have benefits. The thing that we're pretty sure does work (pdf) is early-childhood education, but for some reason, it's hard to get people interested in that. But putting $20 billion and serious political capital into that bucket would get you much larger returns than anything you can do for existing schools or entrenched poverty.

By Ezra Klein  | October 14, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Education  
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Comments

Good parenting is the most important variable in education.

Posted by: lauren2010 | October 14, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

a good part of the problem is that parents need to take more responsibility and they don't or can't. While I'm all for giving teachers unions problems for some of the things they do teachers are only with their students less than one third of the day for nine months a year. Parents need to step up their participation in their kids lives if they want their child to succeed.

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 14, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Hard truths? I don't think so. We know how to reduce poverty, we have reduced poverty. Just because some marketing manager from the OC doesn't think we did doesn't make it true.

Posted by: endaround | October 14, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Golly gee, I wonder, wonder, endlessly wonder why our Department of Motor Vehicle Schools are such Department of Motor Vehicle Schools!

What could it be? What COULD it possibly be?

Just don't EVER consider the possibility that the "government" in "government schools" has anything to do with the worsening education establishment.

And certainly don't EVER EVER EVER consider that the free market and real competition could ever delivery a higher quality education product, more efficiently than central planning ever could, because then you couldn't stick your fat nose into everyone else's eduction decisions, and spend everyone else's money showing how much you care about their problems.

Posted by: msoja | October 14, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

What I find frustrating about this debate (and yeah, this is pretty much true of all debates thus not surprising) is that the overselling of potential reforms is completely necessary because without it no one would even try new things. It's not just overselling either; the American school system is overcriticized too. It's not nearly as broken as the conversation suggests. But clearly it could be much better, and without changes it could easily decay to the point where it really will undermine our country (and not just economically, even though that's where the rhetoric usually stops, but also intellectually and culturally).

Posted by: reader44 | October 14, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Endaround is right on. We tackled poverty, and we reduced it by a lot. http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/poverty-1.jpg

Simple solutions to complicated policy problems often don't do much. We treat school reform as if it's separate from housing or transportation but it's all the same thing: richer residents using their power to escape more-poor areas and keep those folks totally out of their community (to protect land values, schools, etc) This comes with the added bonus of believing minorities are always poor. http://tinyurl.com/2fubrvl

So yeah the resulting high-service, high-tax areas left behind will *tend* to have bad schools. Not coincidentally, the areas that distribute costs more fairly -- places with more stable, integrated school districts -- succeed more often.

Posted by: Chris_ | October 14, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

The "biggest problem here is simply that no one has any really compelling answers" but wishes to convince others that a magic answer exists... and can be acquired for just a few dollars more.

What about the most brutal free-choice of all -- elimination of compulsory attendance beyond the primary (K-5) grades? Recently, there have been numerous arguments favoring a permanent underclass -- arguments favoring the importing of humans (illegal immigrants) to fill "unwanted" jobs: why not simply allow those who do not wish to be educated to become that needed underclass -- to fill such unwanted jobs? Why force good students to suffer as part of a futile effort to educate those who do not wish to be educated?

So far, the modern government approach has been less successful than the old-fashioned Jeffersonian approach. Perhaps it's time to allow free choice to demonstrate to each individual the value of a good education: a little suffering -- a gentle (figurative) smack upside the head -- might knock some sense into those unwilling to participate in the educational process.

Posted by: rmgregory | October 14, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Of course there are things we can do that would help entrenched poverty and consequently education whose woes are a by-product.

1) Raise the minimum wage to a liveable level.
2) Force employers to allow fast, easy unionization if employees desire.

Of course the rich people who own the pols wouldn't allow any such thing. Maybe we wouldn't "grow" the economy as fast, but a more equitable spread of what the country has would do wonders for both education and poverty. As a country, we just aren't willing or able to move toward helping either.

Posted by: janinsanfran | October 14, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

After graduating college, I started working in education policy research, and it's one of the most frustrating fields I can imagine. You pour yourself into research, evaluating promising programs that seem to be helping - and then find absolutely miniscule effect sizes, if anything at all. Sometimes there will be encouraging short-term effects, only to taper out considerably as you look further into the future.

The truth is that one summer intervention can't undo twelve years of falling behind in K-12 education, and investing in human capital isn't cheap. I still think it's worth it, and there's a general misalignment between what we expect from education and what we expect to pay for it.

As for the argument (advanced by commenter msoja above) that private schools would do a better job than public schools, I don't think there's much evidence even for that. When you control for school-level socio-economic status and family background, the positive "private school effect" basically disappears.

Posted by: madjoy | October 14, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

You're absolutely right about both early education and, as the comments show, the complete inability to get people interested in it.

I don't get it.

How do people right or left, feel so comfortable condemming a two year old with under equiped parents to a lifetime of diminished expectations with virtually no attempt to help?

Posted by: sfmandrew | October 14, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

This is a great post, and one that I think gets at the heart of what tends to be a pretty lame debate we've all been having about education. as one of the 'ed people' Drum mentioned, I'm not mad at him at all. I think what most frustrates educators about the current discourse around 'education reform' is the idea that there's a 'solution' out there somewhere, a holy grail that, once discovered, will automatically educate our children the same way itunes gives us music.

Education, in the way I think most of us would agree it should be done, is not about finding silver bullets to problems. It's about building knowledge in students over time. A long time. Many years. Teachers and kids come to school every day, and the education they end up with is just the cumulative result of that process. It can be better or worse, and it can be geared and adapted to the changing needs of society. But that doesn't mean there are quick answers to the inherent difficulties of the process. So there's no reason to feel bad about not finding those quick answers.

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | October 14, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

--*1) Raise the minimum wage to a liveable level.
2) Force employers to allow fast, easy unionization if employees desire.*--

Anyone resists? Send 'em to the camps!

Posted by: msoja | October 14, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink.

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 14, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

Smaller schools and lots more of them.
no more than 1 or 2 classes of each grade (15 students) per class
No more than 150 students per school and kids should only walk to school
We'd have to build lots of new schools - good - and hire lots more teachers - but we'd get rid of all that bureaucracy these ridiculously large schools require

Posted by: KDID | October 14, 2010 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Gentlemen, I am disappointed. Didn't we take "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" to heart? Social science research bears out the HUGE net benefit of primary prevention.

My favorite intervention for many, many costly social ills is home visitation programs for newborns. This is where you can really affect those parenting skills. Here's from the Pew Center on the States:
By teaching parents to stimulate their children’s early learning, home visiting programs help build critical pre-literacy skills and
improve achievement test scores.
• at age six, children who participated in the NfP home
visiting program in Memphis had higher cognitive and
vocabulary scores than those in the control group.12
• at age nine, these children had higher grade point
averages and achievement test scores in math and
reading in first through third grades than those in the
control group.13

Here's recent cost-benefit analysis for Building Nebraska Families, looking at breaking the poverty cycle:
BNF increased employment during last 18 months
of follow-up period

BNF had substantial impacts on average monthly
earnings, increasing over time
–Program group earned 41 percent more than control
group in second year of followup
–56 percent more in final 6 months of followup

Program group members held better jobs, left
TANF sooner, and had greater household income

This is from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Are home-visitation programs cost-effective? Olds writes that "a major portion of the cost for home visitation can be offset by avoided foster care placements, hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and child protective service worker time incurred during the same period that the home visitor program is provided. The long-range financial savings to the community are in all likelihood substantially greater, as is the reduction of human suffering."6 Olds reports that current home-visitation programs cost between $300 and $1750 per family per year depending on the level and frequency of services provided. Even the most expensive programs pay for themselves by the time the children are 4 years old. Approximately 80% of the cost savings comes from reduction in welfare payments and food stamps, with one third of the savings coming from reduction in unintended subsequent pregnancies.

BTW, on July 21: HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius today announced the award of $88 million in grants, provided under the Affordable Care Act, to support evidence-based home visiting programs focused on improving the wellbeing of families with young children.

Posted by: lroberts1 | October 14, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse

--*[O]n July 21: HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius today announced the award of $88 million in grants, provided under the Affordable Care Act, to support evidence-based home visiting programs focused on improving the wellbeing of families with young children.*--

Government agents checking on the babies. Nice. And it's "cost effective". That's so important in a modern society where the government has to wring so much from every citizen.

But, of course, fears of Socialism are overblown.

Does anyone wonder if, alá such trifles as the health care mandate, in the not too distant future whether one will be able to REFUSE the government's "visitation" to one's newborn?

What a wonderful place the Klein's of the world are breeding.

Posted by: msoja | October 14, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

--*but we'd get rid of all that bureaucracy these ridiculously large schools require*--

Sorry, but you're not going to be able to pry the union and bureaucrat hands off the government school cannibal pot. Get it through your head: They're not interested in "education". They're interested in keeping their cushy jobs for as long as they can while doing as little work as they can, and, as long as their political endeavors (kicking their excessive pay back to the politicians who insure they continue to get paid to be mediocre and incompetent) bear fruit, you're a monkey's uncle.

So, like, you can Monday morning quarterback the government all you want, but you need to wake up to the fact that the game is crooked. In order to get what you want you need to get the government out of the education business. There is no reason whatsoever to have it in the education business. In fact, there is every good reason never ever to have it near education.

And that's all it would take to create a hugely successful education industry in the U.S. Get the government out of it.

Posted by: msoja | October 14, 2010 11:33 PM | Report abuse

@ msoja

There are several different models of home visiting programs. Some are affiliated with local health departments, but others are private non-profit organizations that are funded by multiple sources, including grants and individual donors, etc.

Also, home visiting is a voluntary, not mandatory, program. The family has the option to stay in the program if they like, or drop out whenever they please.

It is truly a proven intervention to help these families take more responsibility for their children. A young mom without a family support system might not understand the benefit of reading to her 5-month old, until they are shown how. A family of four, with a working dad and only one car, might not understand the importance of taking their kids to the pediatrician instead of the ER, until they learn the value of having a relationship with a medical home. All these activities are covered in home visiting programs.

If you would like to learn more about home visiting programs, check out this link: http://main.zerotothree.org/site/DocServer/HomeVisitssing_Mar5.pdf?docID=7889/ .

Posted by: jhale2 | October 15, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

A few thoughts:

-- We're having the debate about early childhood education right now in Iowa. The Democratic Governor established a public preschool program, but that is one of the first things his Republican challenger (who is probably going to win) has promised to cut. Virtually no one is willing to look at the long-term benefits to the individuals and society; it's all about the short-term budget cost. How can you enact sensible education policy in a political climate like that?

--I was interested in the WaPo article noting that economic integration seems to be a successful tool for improving results for at-risk children. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/14/AR2010101407051.html?wpisrc=nl_politics

Our current school district is doing this via what I call a stealth integration policy: they claim to have drawn boundary lines for attendance at the various schools according to other demographic data (with maps then prepared by an outside consultant), but amazingly, the result is an essentially balanced number of students at each elementary that receives a free or reduced price lunch. You don't arrive at that result by accident. One of the school principals told some parents I know that he was pleased with that result, because putting too many of those children in one school results in discipline and other problems.

The problem, as the WaPo article notes, is one our family is currently experiencing: because the rent-controlled housing in the district isn't balanced in the district (compared to the school locations), we ended up in a gerrymandered zone that helped them keep their numbers balanced. That means families in our area don't get to go to the closest elementary school; we have to go to one that is twice as far away as the nearest school. So much for neighborhood schooling.

From research I did on the Internet when trying to fight the proposed boundary lines, I discovered that parts of North Carolina have been using socioeconomic status to integrate, rather than race, and some of the parents are revolting for that very reason -- they buy homes close to a school for a reason, not to have their children spend massive amounts of time on a bus.

I'm really torn. I hate the distance and the busing and the loss of the "neighborhood" concept, even as I understand the policy (even though I'm angry the district is doing it without publicly admitting it and inviting a discussion on the topic) and I generally support any kind of policy that promotes diversity. When I used to read the court cases about racial integration, I couldn't understand why parents would so strongly object to busing, but now I get it.

To me, this is a problem that should be approached from a planning and zoning approach (to balance out the low-income housing), not with busing. That could be done if the schools and cities would coordinate, but you can't do it unless you admit that's what you're doing.

Posted by: reach4astar2 | October 15, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

On the issue of smaller schools/less bureaucracy: that is a continual issue in Iowa, where the rural areas fight against school consolidation. Part of the argument for consolidation is that it would decrease bureaucracy and lower administrative costs, because you have fewer school districts, fewer superintendants, and fewer principals, while being able to benefit from more market power in purchasing goods and services. That argument has so far not prevailed, in large part because smaller towns feel their economic viability is lost if they have no school in town.

Living in a metro area, I'm not personally convinced that smaller is better, even apart from economic issues. My oldest attends one of the larger high schools in the area, and they have an outstanding curriculum that couldn't be offered in a smaller school. For example, they offer many foreign languages (including Japanese and Mandarin), and many AP and other advanced courses that a smaller population wouldn't justify. (The district does have an alternative high school for those not seeking a college prep curriculum, by the way.)

But probably the key to the school's success is socioeconomic. It is in a relatively affluent suburb, although there are pockets of lower income. Parental expectation is higher and parents are more involved, overall (based on newspaper articles I read about the issue). It has nearly none of the issues (like drop-out rates) that schools in the city (Des Moines) has, where the low income areas are more extensive and concentrated. They are going to have a new charter school, and have discussed magnet schools, but it's too early to tell if that will solve their issues. Because of shifting population, they've actually been consolidating a lot of elementary schools to save money, but the problems pre-date these moves.

Classroom size is really more relevant than school size. One teacher can help a struggling student more when she has less than 20 in her class, as compared to having 30 or more. In fact, one local article noted the successful use of multiple teachers in classrooms in Finland (or one of the other countries in that region), to help students as soon as they begin to struggle, rather than later. But that kind of approach takes a lot more money, and the political & economic climate at present is not supporting additional funding for concepts like that.

Posted by: reach4astar2 | October 15, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

There are many natural problems with the present education systems. A beginning for the solution is the need for an agreement on the most basic educational goal. If the agreed upon goal can be the natural intellectual development of each child then it will be the scientific understanding of how to facilitate the natural process.
The scientific understanding is that human conscious learning begins in the age span of 2 1/2 to 3. This is the most scientific reason for beginning of formal education at that age.
Because of our personal scientific educational experience is primarily in the unscientific K-12 system that fundamental scientific perspective is not a selling point for any natural education. The science of the present system is the individual child's response to
the systems best guess at to what is their intellectual development needs.
The base of the present education system has been evolving for six thousand years as an adult externally motivated intellectual elimination process. It is the shift in that basic goal that has been evolving since 1830 when the goal changed to the intellectual development of all children.
This is the needed understanding.

Posted by: LaserArtsMan | October 15, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

There are no agreements for the
solutions for the present education system. If the agreement can be the natural scientific intellectual development of each child the needed understanding is how does that process takes place.
The scientific understanding that human conscious intellectual development starts in the age span of 2 1/2 to 3 is the base for pre-school.
Because our personal experience has only been in the present unscientific education process science is not a personal scientific experience.
The present educational system has been evolving for the past six thousand years as an externally motivated elimination process. That educational goal change in 1830 when we change the goal to the intellectual development of all children.
This is what needs to be understood if we are going to reach the goal of the intellectual development of all children.

Posted by: LaserArtsMan | October 15, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

There are no agreements for the
solutions for the present education system. If the agreement can be the natural scientific intellectual development of each child the needed understanding is how does that process takes place.
The scientific understanding that human conscious intellectual development starts in the age span of 2 1/2 to 3 is the base for pre-school.
Because our personal experience has only been in the present unscientific education process science is not a personal scientific experience.
The present educational system has been evolving for the past six thousand years as an externally motivated elimination process. That educational goal change in 1830 when we change the goal to the intellectual development of all children.
This is what needs to be understood if we are going to reach the goal of the intellectual development of all children.

Posted by: LaserArtsMan | October 15, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

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