Edunihilism and Early Childhood

Citing James Heckman’s latest paper (PDF) Kevin Drum offers what is, I think, far and away the most persuasive criticism of the “education reform” movement—the decent evidence for edu-nihilism:

Heckman says nothing that happens in schools resolves these gaps:

[G]aps arise early and persist. Schools do little to budge these gaps even though the quality of schooling attended varies greatly across social classes. Much evidence tells the same story as Figure 1. Gaps in test scores classified by social and economic status of the family emerge at early ages, before schooling starts, and they persist. Similar gaps emerge and persist in indices of soft skills classified by social and economic status. Again, schooling does little to widen or narrow these gaps.

What I like about Drum’s post is that he actually has the courage to take this conclusion to where it genuinely ought to lead:

Intensive, early interventions, by contrast, genuinely seem to work. They aren’t cheap, and they aren’t easy. And they don’t necessarily boost IQ scores or get kids into Harvard. But they produce children who learn better, develop critical life skills, have fewer problems in childhood and adolescence, commit fewer crimes, earn more money, and just generally live happier, stabler, more productive lives. If we spent $50 billion less on K-12 education—in both public and private money—and instead spent $50 billion more on early intervention programs, we’d almost certainly get a way bigger bang for the buck.

This, however, is why I’m genuinely confused about the extent to which the current debate tends to construe people like me and my colleagues on the CAP education team as the enemies of K-12 teachers. If it’s true that we don’t need to shake up the K-12 school system because what happens inside K-12 schools doesn’t alter socioeconomically determined achievement gaps, then the policy remedy is random across-the-board cuts in K-12 school spending. Try taking that idea to Randy Weingarten and see if you become her new best friend! Fortunately Weingarten herself is smarter than that is and is now trying to get teachers on board with changes to the ways teachers get paid.

Now as it happens, I think the Drum/Heckman analysis is a misreading of the evidence. If you look at early childhood interventions and if you look at K-12 schools, I think you see the exact same thing. Most actually existing early childhood programs don’t do much to close achievement gaps and most actually existing K-12 school systems don’t do much to close achievement gaps. But the very best early childhood interventions “aren’t cheap, and they aren’t easy” but they work. The same, however, is true of the best K-12 schools, often charters. They aren’t cheap and they aren’t easy and people wonder if the model is scalable and blah blah blah which is all fair.

I think this all leads us back to common sense. Children spend the majority of their time outside of school buildings. Consequently, peer group effects and parenting constitute the bulk of the non-biological influences on kids. And human children are biological systems heavily impacted by nutrition, genetics, prenatal conditions, ambient lead, etc. But schools also matter. Effective schooling is possible and important. Lack of strong evidence about which methods are most effective points to the need for rigorous assessment, organizational flexibility, and choice.