For the last dozen years, waves of idealistic Americans have campaigned to reform and improve K-12 education.
Armies of college graduates joined Teach for America. Zillionaires invested in charter schools. Liberals and conservatives, holding their noses and agreeing on nothing else, cooperated to proclaim education the civil rights issue of our time.
Yet I wonder if the education reform movement hasn’t peaked.
The zillionaires are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. The number of young people applying for Teach for America, after 15 years of growth, has dropped for the last two years. The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity.
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K-12 education is an exhausted, bloodsoaked battlefield. It’s Agincourt, the day after. So a suggestion: Refocus some reformist passions on early childhood.
I say that for three reasons. First, there is mounting evidence that early childhood is a crucial period when the brain is most malleable, when interventions are most cost-effective for at-risk kids.
Researchers are finding that poverty can harm the brains of small children, perhaps because their brains are subjected to excessive cortisol (a stress hormone) and exposed less to conversation and reading. One study just published in Nature Neuroscience found that children in low-income families had a brain surface area on average 6 percent smaller than that of children in high-income families.
“Neuroscience tells us we’re missing a critical, time-sensitive opportunity to help the most disadvantaged kids,” notes Dr. Jack Shonkoff, an early childhood expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Growing evidence suggests what does work to break the poverty cycle: Start early in life, and coach parents to stimulate their children. Randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evidence, have shown this with programs like Nurse-Family Partnership, Reach Out and Read, and high-quality preschool. These kinds of interventions typically produce cognitive gains that last a few years and then fade - but, more important, also produce better life outcomes, such as less crime, fewer teenage pregnancies, higher high school graduation rates, and higher incomes.
The second reason to focus on early interventions is that the low-hanging fruit has already been picked in the K-12 world. Charter schools like KIPP showed that even in high-poverty environments, students can excel. In New York City, which under Michael Bloomberg became a center for education reform, high school graduation rates rose to 66 percent in 2013 from 47 percent in 2005.
I support education reform. Yet the brawls have left everyone battered and bloodied, from reformers to teachers unions. I’m not advising surrender. Education inequity is America’s original sin. A majority of American children in public schools are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, and they often get second-rate teachers in second-rate schools - even as privileged kids get superb teachers. This perpetuates class and racial inequity and arises in part from a failed system of local school financing.
But fixing K-12 education will be a long slog, so let’s redirect some energy to children aged 0 to 5 (including prenatal interventions, such as discouraging alcohol and drug use among pregnant women).
That leads to my third reason: Early education is where we have the greatest chance of progress because it’s not politically polarized. New York City liberals have embraced preschool, but so have Oklahoma conservatives. Teacher unions will flinch at some of what I say, but they have been great advocates for early education. Congress can’t agree on much, but Republicans and Democrats just approved new funding for home visitation for low-income toddlers.
My perspective is shaped by what I’ve seen. Helping teenagers and adults is tough when they’ve dropped out of school, had babies, joined gangs, compiled arrest records or self-medicated.
But in Oklahoma, I once met two little girls, ages 3 and 4, whose great-grandmother had her first child at 13, whose grandmother had her first at 15, whose mom had her first at 13 and now has four children by three fathers. These two little girls will break that cycle, I’m betting, because they (along with the relative caring for them) are getting help from an outstanding early childhood program called Educare. Those two little girls have a shot at opportunity.
Even within early education, there will be battles. Some advocates emphasize the first three years of life, while others focus on 4-year-olds. Some seek to target the most at-risk children, while others emphasize universal programs.
But early childhood is not a toxic space, the way K-12 education is now. So let’s redeploy some of our education passions, on all sides, to an area where we just may be able to find common ground: providing a foundation for young children aged 0 to 5.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.