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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Tue, 04/16/2013 - 8:45am
Thanks for continuing to shine a light on the importance of investing smart and early. I would also suggest that the difference between early childhood education and K-12 investments is that early childhood recognizes the whole child and family. Home visiting for parents, prevention, health, nutrition, social emotional development all figure into the equation of early childhood education. If we had this wholistic approach in K-12, we might see better sustaining of the gains made in preschool along with equipping school-age children and their families to navigate the rapidly changing educational and economic environment. School-based health care is one component of K-12 education that helps support this wholistic approach. Kids who are healthy learn and graduate!
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 8:49am
Depending on who you talk to we spend somewhere between $11.0 Billion and $14.0 Billion annually on education in Michigan. 50% of that money is identified as reaching the classroom. No where in the "conversation" surrounding our children's education is the input of the child or the teacher. There have been token efforts made but largely the voices of those that reside at the point where the service of education is delivered are ignored. The Center for Michigan has tapped into that voice through its' Community Conversations and they have shared, repeatedly, their findings and conclusions with the legislature and the public. But the legislature is not hearing what is being said. This is evident since the members of House and Senate Education Committees and the various Appropriations Committees, the people that produce the policy that is ruling education, dither about how to jigger curriculum, class size, length of school year, testing, cyber education, teacher evaluation, improving scores, etc., etc. and they spend a lot of money with consultants and push the MDE into projects none of which have any hope of ever capturing the voices that the Center for Michigan is attempting to share. with them. Maybe that is why $5.5 to $7.0 billion of our public education dollars never see the inside of a classroom.
Sam Hagar
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 8:53am
The comparison of money spent is meaningless. What 'props' do you need to teach pre-schoolers? Some basic toys, simple books, and pillows for naps? What 'props' do you need to teach a college-level chemistry lab? Fully equipped laboratories, chemicals, etc. While more attention should be focused on pre-schools, the comparison of dollars spent is so misguided that such reports read like political diatribes as opposed to thoughtful treatises aimed at addressing a serious problem.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 9:17am
Calling all education policy makers, here's your job description: 1. Distinguish between compliance and capacity (the capability of the existing process to accomplish what you demand. (MME, Testing, setting target scores and goals won't do it)). 2. Distinguish between implementation variations that result from failure to comply with basic regulations and those that result from differences in capacity. (More regulations = less capacity) 3. Regulate only those activities for which it is possible to specify a clear standard of performance and which constitute minimum prior conditions for successful implementation. (categorical funding is a detriment to performance) 4. Focus resources as close as possible to the point of delivery. (the classroom) 5. Evaluate policy alternatives by mapping backwards (see LEAN current state process mapping) from the point of delivery to the point where policy decisions are made (the legislature & the MDE). If you don't understand the process your policy decisions are inherently defective. It's pretty clear that those responsible for establishing educational policy do not understand the power of diversity in any system (our current system of education rejects diversity) nor do they understand that variation exists in all systems/processes (despite the legislature's bests efforts to eliminate variation) and that understanding the causes of that variation is a significant part of solution (policy) setting. If you accept a position of policy making it is an inherent responsibility to understand what it is you are dealing with and a key to that understanding is listening to the people that do the actual work at the point of service delivery, the students and their teachers. Hard work, but not impossible. Questions? Please do some homework and refer to "Complexity and Control. What Legislators and Administrators Can Do about Implementing Public Policy" By Richard F. Elmore; Out of the Crisis" by Edwards W. Deming; "The Machine that Changed the World" Womack, Jones and Roos; and a local author, "Becoming Lean" by Jeffrey K. Liker - U of M. The alliterative is a refusal to learn and that alone should compel you to resign from policy making.
Kim Hunter
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 9:19am
Hagar has a very good point: the relatively low cost of early childhood education compared to even a good high school to say nothing of college makes costs comparisons sketchy. Even so, there are many in this society that don't understand how utterly humane and cost effective early childhood education is and a case has to be made to provide even the most basic resources as a universal standard. In addition, the real cost is training teachers to be caregivers. While the materials cost of early childhood education is low, the cost of equipping people to create the right environment is not.
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 9:22am
High quality early childhood programs must include great preschools, parent engagement and education, and high quality K-3 programs. As a nation we are muddling along, spinning our wheels worrying about Common Core State Standards, new federalized assessment systems, and teacher evaluation procedures. We continue to rely on the same old antiquated systems of instruction and testing, and wonder why our outcomes are not getting much better. Other nations around the world are less mired in old patterns. Singapore, S. Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Finland, Australia, and Canada are leaving us behind. One of the essential ingredients of a better system in our country will certainly be high-quality early learning programs. All other reforms are compromised if the foundation of early learning success is not well-established. Phil Powers, thanks for becoming a loud clear voice of reason.
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 11:02am
“All things being equal, babies who start behind are still behind by the time they’ve finished school.” Is that true? What if there is a non-equal throughout their educational life? What if the difference is the expectation given to the child for education, what if that expectation becomes the child’s expectation, what if that expectation is different for those who succeed in learning from those who don’t? It seems Mr. Power can only see the delivery system. I wonder if he has ever considered that the child is the most critical element and constant in their education. What if the child’s attitude when they enter the classroom is more important than ability, then the particular teacher, the school system, the amount of money spent? With all the research it never seems to be about finding out the root causes of what makes a student successful. Why don’t we hear about why a ‘poor’ kid with a single illiterate mother from the poorest parts of Detroit can become a world renowned pediatrics surgeon, why his siblings become well educated and succeed? We hear about the failures in Detroit why don’t we hear why those who succeed in that system? Mr. Power and others seem to look at the things they think they can make equal, the delivery system, and avoid the one thing that we want to be unique, the child. Why not give the child responsibilities for their own education?
Charles Richards
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 1:15pm
"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." How does Mr. Power arrive at his conclusion? Perhaps there are other factors that account for both the higher scores of the children of college graduate mothers and the rich, stimulating environments. One may be ability (intelligence is highly heritable.) Another may be the possession of "performance character traits" such as grit, self control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. These are different from "moral character traits" such as honesty and integrity. For more on this, see Paul Tough's book "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character." It may be the inculcation of these traits that accounts for such success as early education achieves. It is the lack of competent, capable parents who make this necessary.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 04/21/2013 - 12:20pm
Either/or reasoning is a logical fallacy. Of course we need to spend more on early childhood education. Do we have to decide whether to spend money on either early childhood education or K-12? It is easy to make the argument that we are spending too much money on K-12 education. It is much more difficult to determine how to spend the money we do have. Until we can determine what works, we are drifting in the wind.