Diane Ravitch’s blog this morning references a report on Pre-school education completed by the Economist magazine that rates countries on the quality of their pre-school programs. The United States is ranked #24.
I’ve been involved in public education for over 40 years and can recall reading about the importance of preschool education ever since I entered graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. Presidents from Nixon through Obama and governors of all stripes have extolled the virtues of early intervention. But where is the US in terms of the following elements that “leading countries” have in place for pre-school programming?
- A comprehensive early childhood development and promotion strategy, backed up with a legal right to such education.
- Universal enrolment of children in at least a year of preschool at ages five or six, with nearly universal enrolment between the ages of three and five.
- Subsidies to ensure access for underprivileged families.
- Where provision is privatised, the cost of such care is affordable relative to average wages.
- A high bar for preschool educators, with specific qualification requirements. This is often backed up with commensurate wages, as well as low student-teacher ratio
- A well-defined preschool curriculum, along with clear health and safety standards.
- Clear parental involvement and outreach.
- A broad socioeconomic environment that ensures that children are healthy and well- nourished when they enter preschool.
The answer is clear: we have no comprehensive ECE program; we do not have any universal enrollment in ECE programs; we offer no subsidies to ECE programs; we have no indexed ECE scale; we have no certification requirements for ECE; we have no defined preschool curriculum; we have no parental outreach plans in place; and we have no plan to ensure that all children are healthy and well nourished.
I’m a little behind in my posts, in part because of the Race To The Top grant I wrote about in an earlier post and in part because I have subscribed to Diane Ravitch’s blog, which is full of articles that intersect with my areas of interest. One of her posts led me to this article by Anthony Cody from Education Week‘s Teacher edition critiquing the Gates Foundation’s perspective on poverty. It poses this question: “Can We Defeat Poverty By Ignoring It?”.
The answer is clearly “NO”… and Cody provides a comprehensive data set to support the impact poverty has on school performance. But the whole argument against the linkage between poverty and school performance was captured in this quote of Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist who is a favorite of the run-schools-like-a-business crowd. I offer Hanshek’s quote in its entirety with Cody’s comment in parenthesis and my emphasis added:
There is no doubt, no researcher that I know that has ever said, that family background [note that he refuses to use the term "poverty."] is not extremely important. It’s not an issue. We understand that. We don’t have the means to change families. Or we’re not willing to use that as a nation. We DO have the means to adjust what our schools do. That’s our public policy instrument. That’s why some of us spend all of our time not looking at how to change families, but how to change the schools. There’s absolutely NO evidence that if we gave $10,000 a year more income to poor families that the achievement of those kids would increase. There’s absolutely none. That’s not to say we might not, for societal purposes, and I believe it, that we should worry about the income levels of the poor people. But not because that’s the way to solve our school problems, or that we have to wait until we equalize incomes to address some of these achievement problems that are extraordinarily real.
The notion that educators are advocating increases to family incomes is a straw man argument. I don’t know of any thoughtful educator who suggests giving “$10,000 a year more to poor families” as a way to improve the school performance of children in their households. Rather, that $10,000 could be used to bolster pre-natal care, preschool programs, social services, and other early interventions that might address some of the deficiencies poor children encounter in their daily lives. The hedge fund managers who underwrote Geoffrey Canada saw the benefit of this approach… The $10,000 a year for each child in a poor family could BE the means to change families. So in that regard, Hanushek is wrong: we HAVE the means to change families… But sadly he may be right about the second part of his statement: our nation may not be willing to do so.
This whole situation regarding the relationship between poverty and education reminds me of the ongoing debate about whether humanity is causing global warming. In the final analysis, those who question the linkage between humanity and the climate make the same argument. They create straw man arguments (i.e. how are we going to power our computers if we don’t use energy?) and follow them with a statement like “and if humanity IS responsible for global warming what are we going to do about it?”, thus concluding that nothing CAN be done about it. We COULD impose a heavy carbon tax and thereby increase the efficiency of cars and power plants and/or reduce consumption. But the same rule applies to global warming: we CAN take action but we don’t want to— we don’t have the will.
The title of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation blog where this post originally appeared is called “Impatient Optimists”, a title Cody plays on in the paragraph that followed the Hanushek quote:
So this is the justification of the “impatient” reformers for disrupting and shutting down schools, dismissing whole staffs, and dislocating thousands of struggling poor children into other under-resourced buildings. We cannot WAIT to repair poverty. We have to tackle the problem where it is manageable and surmountable, in our schools. We cannot hold society accountable, so instead we will hold teachers and administrators accountable for their students’ performance.
I am an impatient optimist… I keep believing that people want to have equal opportunity for all children and will see that money spent to help children born in poverty is a good investment in the future… but it seems like time is running out. As the previous blog post noted, we are spending more on prisons than we spend on schools and as other blog posts note the gap between affluent schools and schools serving children born in poverty is widening at an astonishing rate.
The Common Dreams blog post describes our nation’s perverse spending priorities: many of the largest states in our country are spending more on prisons than they are on post-secondary education…. and we have a higher percentage of our population behind bars than any developed country on the planet. A couple of tidbits:
Arnold Schwarzenegger summarized California’s spending priorities as follows:
Thirty years ago, 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and only 3 percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education. Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future.
In Pennsylvania, the State government “…now spends twice as much on corrections as it does on higher education.”
In Massachusetts, the Boston Gobe reports that “…legislators cut state appropriations to higher education 37 percent between 2008 and 2012. The state spent dollar for dollar on higher ed and corrections in 2007.” You can do the math: spending for prisons is higher than spending for college.
But our prison population surges while the cost of college soars:
The U.S. incarceration rate in 1980 was 220 for every 100,000 people, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Today, with more than 2 million people incarcerated, the rate has climbed to 743 per 100,000 people.
Here’s another sad fact, according to the report cited above, “..nonviolent drug offenders account for “roughly one-fourth of all inmates in the United States, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.” So let’s recount the bidding: we’re spending millions to incarcerate non-violent drug users and adding millions in debt to college students because we’re effectively shifting dollars from schools to prisons.
Where are we going? And why are we in a hand basket?