Yesterday Julie Mack, the education reporter at the Kalamazoo Gazette, posted my somewhat lengthy thoughts on education reform.
The essay posted at Julie’s blog originally was an email to a friend of mine. She was running a forum at her church on school reform. The church group was reading several articles on school reform. The articles leaned towards the notion that “school reform” was simply a way to destroy public schools. My essay/e-mail was trying to say that I thought the “school reform” movement did have some positive ideas to offer.
Education reform is so important that we should be willing to try a number of approaches to improving the educational achievement of our children. This is not because schools have worsened over time. Rather, the imperative for our society is that our economy is demanding greater skills. At the same time, there are more children who start out from backgrounds with significant disadvantages. As a result, our educational system needs to provide much higher value added than once was required.
School reforms address issues with teacher quality, school quality, and accountability. Because teacher quality and school quality is so important, we certainly should be willing to try reforms that attempt to improve teacher quality and school quality.
However, we should frankly admit that we do not have research-based and research-proven methods to improve teacher and school quality, and ensure educational accountability. What role do higher salaries for teachers play? Does merit pay make sense? If so, how should it be best designed to build up teacher morale and cooperation rather than undermining it? How important should test score gains be in teacher evaluations and school evaluations? How can such evaluations best control for the mix of students and for summer learning loss? These are all issues on which our knowledge is more imperfect than we would like.
Therefore, in adopting school reforms, we should adopt a frankly experimental attitude. We should try out possible school reforms. We should try to be careful to design such reforms to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. And these reforms need to be modified as results come in. Accountability should apply to school reforms as well as to schools.
On the other hand, there are other policies that we know will improve educational achievement. Among those are high-quality early childhood education programs. Here, we do have research-proven knowledge of what works.
We know that high-quality pre-K programs can significantly improve educational achievement at kindergarten entrance, by 10 to 25 percentiles. We know that these programs can increase high school graduation rates by 10 to 20%. We know that pre-K programs can improve adult earnings by 7 to 20%. We know that high-quality pre-K programs can improve future earnings for both students from low-income families, and students from middle-income families, by similar dollar amounts. This similar dollar effect on different income groups is a much greater percentage boost to future earnings prospects for disadvantaged students.
Furthermore, we know that pre-K programs can be successfully carried out by a large number of different states and school districts. These programs do not need to be run by genius administrators and supervised by the leading researchers to be successful. A typical American state or school district can implement a pre-K program that is high enough quality to make a difference. The pre-K program does need to have a reasonable class size, reasonable quality teachers, and a reasonable quality curriculum. All of this costs money, but does not unduly strain administrative talent.
Pre-K can be successful even if we don’t reform the K-12 system. For example, the evidence suggests that the Chicago Child-Parent Center program was successful with most students continuing on to Chicago Public Schools. With all due respect to Chicago Public Schools, this obviously is a school district facing many challenges that has by no means solved all its problems.
However, expanded pre-K will be more successful if we also improve the K-12 system. There is some evidence that there are positive synergies between early childhood education and the K-12 system. The rate of return to investing in pre-K will be higher if the K-12 system is stronger, and the rate of return to investing in the K-12 system will be higher if the pre-K system has a higher percentage of kids in high-quality preschool programs.
We should experiment with school reforms to improve the K-12 system. These also include school reforms that try the somewhat blunt approach of simply increasing learning time, for example by lengthening the school year or having mandatory summer school. Adding learning time will cost additional resources. If we truly want to do everything we can to improve school quality, we will have to include reforms that cost money.
In sum, educational improvement is so important that we should be willing to try a wide variety of reforms. But this should include reforms that cost money, when those reforms have strong research evidence of cost-effectiveness. Early childhood education has such research evidence for cost-effectiveness, and should play a leading role in any educational reform efforts.