Friday, March 4, 2011

The Data Shrugs at Us

Kevin Drum looks at the data this morning, and as he notes, the data "comes close" to saying that nothing we do in our schools matters as much as what happens to students in their first three years of life. The data taps us on the shoulder and points out that "Gaps in test scores classified by social and economic status of the family emerge at early ages, before schooling starts, and they persist." Drum is riffing off a (PDF) study by James Heckman of the Institute for the Study of Labor:

In contemporary America, racial gaps in achievement are primarily due to gaps in skills. Skill gaps emerge early before children enter school. Families are major producers of those skills. Inequality in performance in 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. Parenting matters, and the true measure of child advantage and disadvantage is the quality of parenting received. A growing fraction of American children across all race and ethnic groups are being raised in dysfunctional families. Investment in the early lives of children in disadvantaged families will help close achievement gaps. America currently relies too much on schools and adolescent remediation strategies to solve problems that start in the preschool years. Policy should prevent rather than remediate. Voluntary, culturally sensitive support for parenting is a politically and economically palatable strategy that addresses problems common to all racial and ethnic groups.

Drum hastens to add that we shouldn't stop trying to improve our schools, but that we need to be a lot more skeptical of education fads and cure-alls. Rather, as the data cocks an eyebrow at us and mutters "duh," we need to be putting a lot more resources into early childhood education and family support.

But this has been obvious for a long time. I recall that Rob Reiner produced an eye-opening TV special in 1997 summarizing recent research in early childhood brain development (subsequently expanded into a video series for new parents). I also recall Ross Perot calling for universal pre-school during his 1992 presidential campaign, arguing it would save $5 for every dollar spent. That's enough to provide every Teabagger in the country with Medicare for life.

These kinds of investments would also tie in rather neatly to the whole concept of community schooling I mentioned a few days ago: schools kept open until late at night, year-round, offering adult education, parental support, with health and social services headquartered there. It's a win-win situation, simultaneously improving family outcomes and school outcomes.

The data, casting a last look over its shoulder as it leaves us to hang out with its friends, also suggests that teachers are right when they argue that working to reduce poverty will do more to close the achievement gap than, say, punishing schools and teachers whose scores fail to improve. And the flip side of that is that right now, with our lackadaisical approach to combatting unemployment, we're coming close to creating a whole generation of unnecessarily impaired children.

Heckman talks about the "soft skills"deficits that afflict low-SES students: "motivation, sociability (the ability to work with and cooperate with others), attention, self regulation, self esteem, the ability to defer gratification and the like." Any teacher can tell you that, absent these qualities, students are very hard to educate, even (especially?) if they happen to be bright kids. And I can tell you that I could see these problems metastasize as our country, and my students' community, sank into economic malaise in 2008 and 2009.

While there may not be much we can do about these things once the kids are in school, that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do. The most successful schools where I've substituted have a daily focus on character skills as well as academic ones. But as Drum and Heckman rightly point out, working to prevent such social skills deficits in the first place is a no-brainer - or it ought to be. Unfortunately, we're stuck in a moment we can't get out of - one in which the data needs to hit you upside the head with a two-by-four to get you to listen.

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