Educational improvements: hard solutions versus easy solutions

Julie Mack, the education reporter at the Kalamazoo Gazette, recently wrote a column on school choice, largely based on an interview with me. In that column, she accurately described me as concluding that school choice has been disappointing in that it does not seem to have had large and persistent effects in improving student achievement.

For example, consider charter schools. In some cases, rigorous evaluation in some settings of some charter schools suggest that they may sometimes out-perform some traditional public schools. For example, there are some favorable evaluations of KIPP schools, and some favorable evaluations of charter schools in Boston. But on average, across all charter schools in all settings, it does not seem that charter schools are any more effective than traditional public schools in increasing student achievement.  Perhaps the best way to interpret these disparate results is that for some low-income urban students in troubled public schools, well-run charter schools can sometimes improve achievement, but this finding does not apply to all charter school approaches or all students.

I would apply similar comments to other proposed school reforms such as merit pay and more rigorous accountability systems for public schools. I think there is potential for these reforms to sometimes improve education, but I suspect that large educational gains from these reform proposals will be difficult to consistently realize.

Most of the popular education reforms are hard to implement consistently well in all settings. This is in part because educational quality is inherently difficult to improve. There are many factors, such as poverty and family background, that affect how much students learn. School quality and teacher quality affect educational achievement in complex ways, and are difficult to measure accurately.  The success of educational reforms rest on complex details in how these reforms are implemented.  The devil is in the details, and it is hard to consistently get such details right on a large scale.

But there are relatively easy approaches to improving educational achievement that we know will work. For example, a consistent finding in educational research is that more student time engaged in educational activities will increase student learning.  Student learning can be increased through adding on days to the school year, or requiring mandatory summer school for students who are behind.   Student learning can also be increased by adding on high-quality early childhood education, as I have describe in this blog and in my book Investing in Kids. Adding early time also has the advantage that it intervenes when children are more malleable, which allows this additional learning time to leverage future learning improvements as well.  To use Nobel-prize-winning economist James Heckman’s phrase, “skills beget skills”.

Adding summer learning time, or days to the school year, or early childhood education,  are easier reforms than most other school reforms from an administrative standpoint.  Adding learning time does not require us to reinvest schools.

On the other hand, adding learning time may be sometimes more politically difficult than some other school reforms, as adding learning time would typically require more funding. The promise of other school reforms is that they can boost achievement levels without requiring more funding.

However, from a long-term perspective, many initiatives to add learning time, including early childhood education, will eventually pay for themselves.  Adding extra learning time, especially from early childhood up to early elementary grades, will reduce long-term costs for special education and remedial education, reduce future criminal justice system and welfare costs, and add tax revenues from extra adult earnings of former participants in these programs.

I also don’t think that this is an “either-or” proposition. We can immediately move to boost educational achievement by adding early learning time. And we can keep on trying to incrementally improve educational quality in other ways as well, by experimenting with different ways of boosting school quality and teacher quality. However, we should recognize that boosting educational quality per hour of student time is not an easy thing to do, and therefore we should not rest our hopes of immediate large educational improvements on assuming that reform will work on a large scale.

Boosting student achievement on a large scale is a sufficiently important goal that we should be willing to take vigorous action that we can be assured will work, even if this costs money in the short-run.   Educational improvements are vital to the economic future of state and local areas, and the entire nation.  Investing in added learning time, while also working to incrementally improve educational quality, is a balanced strategy that responds to the urgency of our need for educational improvements.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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  1. Pingback: “You can’t be pro-business unless you’re pro-education” | investinginkids

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