Successful Policies for Low-income Children Yet High Cost and Low Resolve Trump Evidence

Preschool programs for low-income children help build solid adults, the evidence says. Wraparound programs offering poor children and youth rigorous academic content  and social services help build solid adults, the evidence says.  Now there is even more evidence. Offering college scholarships to elementary school children who graduate high school works.

In 1981, a businessman offered college tuition to elementary school students in New York City who graduated high school. Called “I Have a Dream,” Eugene Lang’s efforts had prompted two Washington, D.C. businessmen in 1988 to make a similar offer to 59 fifth graders at Seat Pleasant elementary school in Prince George’s county (MD). A recent series in the Washington Post documented what happened to those 59 poor and minority fifth graders who were called “Dreamers.”.  The reporter summarized the results of that experiment:

“at least 11 of the 59 graduated from four-year colleges; at least three of those 11 attained advanced degrees; at least 12 students completed trade school; six dropped out of high school; what happened to six more remains unknown.

[The project coordinator] knows that the Dreamers’ high school graduation rate of 83 percent far surpassed Prince George’s overall rate in 1995. He also knows that the vast majority did not finish college, a fact that is true of many Dreamers nationally, according to a summary of several studies by the “I Have a Dream” Foundation.

From New York to Portland to Houston, the Dreamers graduated from high school and enrolled in college in far higher numbers than other students. But they often struggled to finish college.”

The early intervention in children’s lives, the incentive of having college paid and providing on-going help from advisers and counselors have spurred poor students to stay in high school and graduate far surpassing similarly situated students who were not beneficiaries of these programs (see Kahne PDF 1164238 ). Yet far higher graduation rates from high school followed by difficulties in going to college and persisting toward graduation is the pattern for these programs targeting low-income and minority elementary school students. The money and help has not altered the low numbers of those entering college after high school and the ferocious dropout rate among those who did go on to higher education. But it did change the all-too-familiar trajectory of most Seat Pleasant Dreamers–they graduated high school, some went to college, many took jobs, got married, and had kids. And, yes, some went to prison. But not in the percentages that their peers experienced.

So there is a wealth of evidence that educational and social early intervention programs help young children in family and school achieve success in elementary and secondary school, producing hard-working engaged adults who, in turn, help their children succeed.

But that same body of evidence also reveals poverty’s effects on individuals, family, peers, and neighborhood in those who did not graduate high school, dropped out of college, and lost their way in crime and addictions. Zip codes may not be destiny but being poor surely influence one’s life chances.

So why is there a continuing struggle between the “no excuses” crowd of school reformers and those reformers that call for both rigorous academic programs and social services?

ANSWER: The “no excuses” crowd has become the establishment among reformers with two Presidents and most of the corporate community behind them politically as donors line up to fund charter start-ups, expand parental choice through vouchers and similar ventures. Steven Brill’s Class Warfare maps that political terrain very well (See here, here, and here).

It is not that these “no excuse” reformers dismiss poverty as a factor in growing healthy, successful adults. They recognize the harmful effects of being poor but they want schools to focus solely on effective teaching and learning, to concentrate on acquiring knowledge and skills and do what they are supposed to do with children regardless of background. They point to KIPP. They point to those consistently successful charter schools in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Sure, they say, social class is important but it does not determine what each low-income, minority child can achieve.

Then opponents tear apart the results of KIPP and those exceptional urban charter schools. Such a fruitless ideological debate over policy direction often fails to mention cost.

The crux of the matter is money and political will. Intervening early in children’s lives, providing support services to children and youth as they proceed through school, and offering incentives for going to college do, indeed, show results (or return on investment that would delight any far-sighted CEO). But the initial costs of the capital investment up-front are high. With a shrinking pie of resources for  improving schools, there is weak political will to spend (invest?) more on those who need it the most–even when the evidence, even when the return on investment, clearly shows that such decisions pay off for both individuals and society.



Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

9 responses to “Successful Policies for Low-income Children Yet High Cost and Low Resolve Trump Evidence

  1. Lisa Jean

    Thank you for your column. In my work, which bridges the world of school reform and social services for vulnerable populations, I often find myself dwelling on the question of why so much activity labeled school reform or school improvement seems blind the social lives of students. I would like to draw your attention to school effectiveness research, which took hold in the 1970s. Since you are a historian, you might particularly enjoy, “A Conversation Between James Comer and Ronald Edmonds: Fundamentals of Effective School Improvement.”

    The point about political will, which was Ronald Edmonds’ point thirty years ago, has led us to where we are today — he challenged policy makers and educators to do what he believed irrefutably could be done, that is, to educate poor, minority students through more effective schools, and he set out to identify the characteristics of effective schools through research. He likely influenced Geoffrey Canada, who was at Harvard at the same time he was counteracting the interpretation of the Coleman report that schools do not matter and spreading a message that schools could educate poor kids.

    We now have a lot of knowledge about what makes schools effective and a variety of policy efforts to create effective schools — charters, school improvement models, turnaround process. It is important to note that the primary concern of effective schools advocates was providing educational services to poor, minority students that would allow them to achieve minimum mastery on standardized tests. The premise of these advocates was that schools could provide such an education irrespective of students’ background. It was very important to them to take students’ background out of the equation because they perceived that students were being blamed for the failure of schools to provide an education.

    After thirty years of school improvement efforts (and policies) based on these ideas, maybe we are confronting in policy and practice their limitations. Yes, we’re creating “effective” schools, but we can’t do it consistently, a large swath of children are not served by them (they can’t get access to these schools or they drop out), “minimum mastery” is not good enough for a knowledge economy, and it may not actually be possible to transform urban neighborhood school into effective schools without the kinds of services and supports you write of (see the recent report and book on essential schools supports by the Consortium on Chicago School Improvement/Anthony Bryk).

    We made progress through the effective schools movement, but we are now hemmed in by its assumptions, which belong to a world of thirty years ago. Yes, we need political will and resources. We also need to know where we’ve been so we have a better sense of where we are and where we need to go.

    • larrycuban

      Lisa Jean,
      Thank you for reminding readers of Ron Edmonds work and the Effective Schools movement that launched whole-school reform in the late-1980s and ran through the 1990s with the federally funded Comprehensive School Reform Program ( the past decade. Your final two paragraphs sum up nicely the points you and I make.

  2. Bob Calder

    Why do we hear the same sorts of political claims in the news? Today as scientists confront the spectrum of education reform, we hear echoes from other parts of the political landscape when we confront the subject of reform itself.

    The echoes are what Gavin Schmidt terms the “scientifcation of political language”. This is a phenomenon that happens when people attempt to frame their arguments in a way that make claims based on evidence while the arguments themselves are generated by unsupported or “magical” thinking. Talk to Erik Conway at Cal Tech about it. _Merchants of Doubt_ was co-authored by Conway and Natalie Orestes. It takes down the deliberate manufacturing of uncertainty.

    I offer the suggestion that although advances may be made over what would have happened without any intervention, that identification of interventions is hopelessly mired in “scientification” of worthless tail-chasing.

    It even may be possible to look at the average G20 PISA data to use it to create a non-intervention baseline. If that is possible, our middle of the pack standing represents a statement that our interventions have been neutral over the last twenty years. It is probably improbable that the effect is very strong, but I suspect it is worthwhile to discuss it.

    • larrycuban

      With the re-authorization of NCLB before Congress, the matter of evidence becomes critical for those who say the law has failed in intervening—achievement gap unrepaired, test scores in reading still in doldrums–and those who look at different evidence and say the law has succeeded in intervening by making administrators, teachers, and parents more aware of differences among groups of students, increases in math scores. I wonder if this fits into the comment that you made, Bob.

      • Bob Calder

        It looks like evidence is beginning to penetrate the fog of hormones. Who knows if it will be soon enough to do any good?

        The way it reads to me is “Taking vitamins didn’t make me taller, but it made me aware of eating right.”

  3. I’m not sure what meaning was intended by “social class.” I’m guessing that “social class” refers to low, middle, or upper class (i.e. as in socio-economic class). So, please correct me if I’m wrong. Anyway, if it was socio-economic class that was being referred to, I disagree that one’s social class does not determine what a low income child can achieve. Why? Well, I’ll give one example. If a child is performing poorly in math and their parent(s) can afford a tutor, then that child will have more time with a teacher and with a 1:1 ratio at that. Otherwise, the time the child has available with their regular school teacher might not always be adequate to get them to perform at his/her best.

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