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What if we're investing in the wrong education?


A couple of weeks ago, I quoted data from the grim new report, "The State of Black Rochester." The book, published by the Rochester Area Community foundation, lays out the growing crisis in the city's black community: the poverty, the abysmally low achievement in school, the incidence of illness, the incarceration rate, all of which are much worse than for white Rochesterians.

This is what Rochester is today. Without an intensive effort, things will get worse. And as Superintendent Bolgen Vargas writes in "The State of Black Rochester," if we don't make that effort, "the Rochester community can't prosper, given that a significant proportion of the future growth of the population is projected to be largely African American and Latino."

Much of the problem is linked to education, and this community has tried repeatedly to deal with that, through charitable giving, school reform initiatives, business partnerships with schools, mentoring, tutoring, you name it.

But a growing amount of research indicates that we're waiting way too late to act. In a New York Times article last month, "Misdirected Investments in Education," Eduardo Porter put it more bluntly: we're spending our money and exerting our effort on the wrong things, he said.

By the time children enter school, Porter wrote, the learning gap between children of well-educated mothers and those of poorly educated mothers – between rich and poor children – is so great that the latter will never catch up.

School, said Porter, has barely any effect at all.

Barely any effect at all.

Porter cites research by Nobel laureate James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist who for more than a decade has studied early childhood education and development. But numerous other studies have shown the same thing: what happens during the first years of a child's life – the stability of the child's family and neighborhood, how much the child is spoken to (and how), the educational and cultural enrichment the child is exposed to – have a profound, lasting effect.

It's sometimes possible to counter the deficit children start school with, but I think Heckman and others are right: the longer we wait, the harder it is. By age 5 or 6, it seems to be nearly impossible. Even age 3 is late for intervention.

Programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership, which works with new mothers from pregnancy on, have been shown to help, but those programs don't get enough support to reach every family that needs help. Most of our effort and our money, locally and nationally, is focused on older children.

Porter cited a study by Julia Isaacs of the Urban Institute showing that in 2008, "federal and state governments spent somewhat more than $10,000 per child in kindergarten through 12th grade."

"By contrast," Porter wrote, that year "3- to 5-year-olds got less than $5,000 for their education and care. Children under 3 got $300."

Early childhood development isn't the only area we need to focus on. We do need to insure that children have excellent teachers; that pubic school dollars are spent wisely; that schools are excellent facilities; that all children have access to music, art, and other enrichment programs; that school-age children have access to health care.

We can't abandon our efforts to help school-age children do better, learn more, and have a bright future. And James Heckman's critics say his studies are too limited to be taken as a repudiation of our K-12 efforts. Maybe so. On the other hand, they would certainly explain why our expensive, relentless efforts in education are having so little effect. And they would point us toward an effort that offers real promise.

And so I am fixated on one quote from Porter's article in the Times: The education gap "is there before kids walk into kindergarten," Heckman told Porter. "School neither increases nor reduces it."

How much longer, then, can we put most of our effort into remediation?

It's sometimes possible to counter the deficit children start school with, but the longer we wait, the harder it is.