Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 19, 2013

Phil Power: Great start will go a long way


---- — 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.

“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, and 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.

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 entire conventional U.S. approach to education.

Tests given 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.

But 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 OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared U.S. spending on early childhood, grade school and post high school.

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, the state’s preschool program aimed at 4-year-olds.

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

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.

Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: