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Change the school focus from spending more to spending smart

Can anything really move the “needle of achievement” in our kids’ schools? Over the years, we’ve sure spent a whale of a lot of money, time and lung power trying to answer that question.

“School people” -- by which I mean teachers, their unions and many well-meaning parents -- say the answer is spending more, reducing class size, improving teacher training and support, plus finding ways to engage parents in their children’s education.

But is our spending targeted at the right age group?

Much of the conventional debate seems mired in arguments over how much to spend and for what kind of schools.

A majority of the 5,500 Michigan citizens who participated in a series of community conversations the Center for Michigan held last year agree we should spend more on education.

Critics say the public schools, as they now stand, are hopeless. Breaking up their monopoly, increasing enrollment in charter schools and enforcing tougher values and discipline are better ideas, and give parents more and better choices, they argue.

But international data pulled together by James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago, may well have made the this long-running debate entirely irrelevant.

More startling, it suggests we may want to demolish the conventional U.S. approach to education.

Does school even matter?

Tests given to several hundred low-birth-weight 3-year-olds showed children of mothers who had graduated from college scored much higher at age 3 than those whose mothers had dropped out of high school. Conclusion: Kids who grow up in rich, stimulating environments do well in school.

Not surprising. But they were retested at ages 5, 8 and 18 -- and the difference in test scores at the end was just the same as it was at age 3. “The gap is there before kids walk into kindergarten,” Heckman told the New York Times’ Eduardo Porter.  “School neither increases nor reduces it.”

Good schools and effective schooling for all are widely assumed to make up for differences in family culture, income and other inequities. But Heckman’s data suggest that doesn’t seem to be the case. All things being equal, babies who start behind are still behind by the time they’ve finished school.

If that turns out to be true, it’s a scandal, especially considering that, as a nation, we spend something like 5.5 percent of our entire economic output on education from preschool through college.

And most of the money is allocated to the K-12 and college parts of the education continuum, with only small fractions spent on infants and toddlers -- which may well be the heart of the problem.

A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development compared U.S. spending on early childhood, grade school and post-high school to ratios in other nations.

This country spends just a little over 10 percent on early childhood programs, compared with Finland, which spends around 30 percent. In Michigan, we spend around $1 billion per grade in our K-12 system, but only $109.3 million on the Great Start Readiness Program, state’s preschool program aimed at 4-year-olds.

Nationally, the OECD found that spending on higher education is three times as large as on preschool. A study by Julia Isaacs, an expert in education at the Urban Institute, found that federal and state governments annually spend a bit more than $10,000 per child from kindergarten through 12th grade, where 3- to 5-year-olds got less than $5,000 for their education and care.

Spending on children under age 3 was only $300!

Yet study after study concludes that early childhood investments in disadvantaged infants and toddlers pay enormous dividends, whether in school performance, high school graduation rates, college completion, even criminality.

Critics claim Heckman and others who argue for sharply increased spending on preschool are over-interpreting a small number of studies and that the positive effects of programs like Head Start (the federal preschool program) are relatively short-lived.

So what’s the answer?

Regardless of theory, both critics of and advocates for our present school systems have got to pay attention to the uncomfortable fact that despite doubling U. S. per pupil spending on education, scores on math tests have increased only slightly and scores in reading and science actually declined.

There is a depressing logic at play here: We all are dismayed at poor results delivered by our schools, especially when compared internationally. But merely increasing spending in the aggregate doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference.

The only thing that shows promise at moving the needle of school performance is changing the way we allocate our dollars by spending more on early childhood programs.

That’s why it’s so encouraging that Gov. Rick Snyder and both parties in the Michigan Legislature seem on track to sharply increase spending on the Great Start Readiness Program.

Let’s hope they follow through.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.


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