December 2008 Archives

Early Childhood Education -- A Promise that Needs to be Fulfilled

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A recent front page New York Times story highlighted President Elect Obama’s campaign commitment to early childhood education and his pledge of $10 billion to this important cause. As the article correctly notes, the push for comprehensive early childhood education has had a tremendous boost from the research of Nobel-Prize winning economist, James J. Heckman, who showed in dollars what educators, psychologists and child advocates have been saying for years -- that each dollar spent on quality early education can reduce and even eliminate the need for much higher government spending on remedial education, teenage pregnancy, and prisons. “Obama Pledge Stirs Hope in Early Education.”

Research from The Future of Children volumes on Poverty, Opportunity in America, and School Readiness support  President Elect Obama’s plans 100 percent. Articles from various Future of Children publications show that quality early education can be instrumental to increasing social mobility, decreasing poverty, and closing the racial and ethnic achievement gap.  
 
However, quality is the key word. All the research highlighted shows that substantive gains will only be made if preschool teachers are highly educated and well-trained, class sizes are small, and education is the focus of the programs. Such high quality programs are not inexpensive (one estimate is $20 billion a year, net of current spending), but the gains – a savings of $8-$14 for each $1 spent – could be enormous. Generally, current Head Start and average state programs do not quite meet these standards. Family child care does not come close. 
 
Some may say that with the current financial crisis and budget deficit, such funding is unlikely. However, in its policy brief, “Closing Achievement Gaps,” The Future of Children has recommended that the federal government sponsor statewide demonstration programs in several states that agree to enroll all or nearly all low income four-year-olds or three- and four-year olds in high-quality programs.
 
To participate, states would have to agree to meet a series of conditions, including: 1) involving the parents to the maximum degree possible; 2) coordinating the preschool program with the kindergarten program in the public schools; 3) maintaining standards at least as strong as Head Start standards; 4) providing professional development to all teachers in the program; 5) maintaining at least current state spending on preschool programs; 6) participating in a third-party evaluation of program impacts; and, probably most important, 7) outlining a plan for coordinating all state and federal resources for providing quality preschool programs. 
 
By pooling all child care and early education funds – including Head Start, Title I, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, state programs – a single coordinated program could be created as a first step to building a higher quality program for young children – one that exceeds Head Start and other current state programs in its ability to bring children out of poverty, work towards closing the achievement gap, and create a first step in the ladder of opportunity. 
 
For more information, see: 
 
The Next Generation of Anti-Poverty Policies, eds. Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill
 
Opportunity in America, eds. Isabel Sawhill and Sara McLanahan  
 
Closing Racial and Ethnic Gaps, eds. Cecilia Rouse, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Sara McLanahan, 
 
 
 

Recession Hard on Young Men -- A Bad Problem Getting Worse

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The Boston Globe reported on Friday, December 5, 2008 that men are being hit by the current recession in much larger numbers than women. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the industries where men dominate – manufacturing, construction, and investment services – are the ones losing jobs the fastest. According to the Globe, there are 1.1 million fewer men working in the U.S. than a year ago at this time, but there are 12,000 more women working. “Losing Jobs in Unequal Numbers,” page A1.

While cuts are across industries, highly educated men are much more likely to bounce back, while lower-educated men will fare the worst. Wages and employment for lower-educated men have been declining for the past 30 years, and this current recession is expected to make an already bad problem much worse. Both family income and family structure are affected as low income men are left unable to support families they start – leaving more children vulnerable in single-mother, poor households.
 
A recent Future of Children journal and policy brief addressed this issue, arguing that many of society’s ills – delinquency and crime, school dropout, unemployment and nonwork, nonmarital births, and poverty are all associated disproportionately with young men – and offering two quite different approaches to helping poor men and their children.
 
Gordon Berlin proposes a carrot approach  in his article – giving men an incentive to work by extending the earned income tax credit to supplement the earnings of all adult low-wage fulltime workers, regardless of whether they have children or are married, and based on individual income rather than joint or family income.  The potential result is a system that actually rewards marriage of two low-income working partners, and thus encourages formation of two-parent, two-worker households – a boon for poor children.
 
Lawrence Mead goes in a different direction in his article and proposes a stick approach to employing low-income men. In particular, he looks to the child support and criminal justice systems as potential partners in a “help with hassle” approach. Essentially men with unpaid child support judgments and parolees leaving prison would be told to settle any debts they have to their children and get a job – or be required to join a work program where they would be closely supervised and, particularly in the case of prisoners, offered workplace instruction. If they failed to participate, they would face prison.   
 
Neither of these proposals is inexpensive, and both could very well meet with resistance. Therefore the two authors suggest that rather than implementing nationwide, each should be tested in large-scale demonstrations – preferably using random assignment design – to see if in fact these interventions in the lives of low-income men make a difference and have a beneficial impact on their children. 
 
 

School Reform 101: Effective Teachers in the Classroom

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The cover story of this week’s Time Magazine “How to Fix America’s Schools,” features Michelle Rhee, the relatively new and sometimes polarizing chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school district. Rhee has declared that the key to reform is good teachers, and her methods for stacking the school system with good teachers are controversial: shutting schools, firing principals, trimming school administration bureaucracy, and, most significantly, dismissing teachers she deems unacceptable and replacing them with new and improved models. One of her most contentious proposals is to pay teachers who elect to give up tenure higher pay – salaries could reach $130,000 – based on effectiveness as measured by test scores and class room evaluation.  

While this proposal has divided teachers and raised the ire of the union (which rejected Rhee’s proposal), research does support Rhee’s basic contention that good teachers equal good schools. According to a recent Future of Children volume, Excellence in the Classroom, that addresses improving teacher quality, what happens inside the classroom may be the most important factor in closing racial and social class gaps in learning.  “Indeed, teachers are so important, that, according to one estimate, a child in poverty who has a good teacher for five years in a row would have learning gains large enough, on average, to close completely the achievement gap with higher-income students.” 

In light of the findings in the volume, a Future of Children policy brief offers a five part plan to boost teacher quality. 

  1. Rethink entry requirements for teaching. Teachers should meet initial certification but then required to follow rigorous procedures and requirements for tenure or promotion.
  2. Implement a strategy to identify effective teachers. Use test scores as one, but not the only measure of efficacy. In addition to student gains on tests, principal and parent evaluations and possibly other tools developed by all stakeholders should be used. 
  3. Promote only effective teachers. Target professional development to nurture skills and make up for deficiencies, particularly in the early stages of a teacher’s career. If the extra help doesn’t help a deficient teacher improve, dismiss the teacher.
  4. Give bonuses to teachers who teach disadvantaged students or in fields that are difficult to staff.
  5. Promote professional development linked directly to teachers’ work. Not the current model of professional development, but a new and improved model that is several days long; subject specific; and aligned with school goals and curriculum. 

-- Based on “A Plan to Improve the Quality of Teaching in American Schools,” by Ron Haskins and Susanna Loeb. For more information, go to Excellence in the Classroom, eds. Cecilia Rouse and Susanna Loeb, Volume 17, Number 1, Spring 2007.

Juvenile Justice: Keeping Teens Out of Jail

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A recent incident involving an eight year old murder suspect has reignited the debate over the age at which children should be charged as adults. “Experts Doubt That 8-Year-Old’s Taped Confession in Double Killing Is Admissible,” New York Times, Nov. 21, 2008  True, this was a highly unusual case (As Dr. Tom Grisso, one of the authors who contributed to The Future of Children volume on Juvenile Justice, noted to the New York Times, trying an eight year old as an adult would be “more than extraordinary. It would be totally unique.”  And predictably, the jurisdiction issue has since been resolved (it is now in juvenile court with a plea agreement being offered). But the case did raise the more common issue of when it is appropriate to treat juveniles as adults and move them from the juvenile justice system to the criminal justice system.  

According to a recent Future of Children policy brief  both widely accepted legal principles and research on adolescent immaturity argue that juveniles are less responsible for their criminal behavior than adults and should there­fore receive less severe punishment. Research shows that harsh punishment in adult facilities increases the probability of future violent crimes and that most youngsters who commit criminal offenses will abandon illegal behavior as they enter adulthood. Scien­tific evaluations of prevention and treatment programs for youth that provide systematic treatment in community and family settings show that these programs significantly re­duce future criminal behavior without the need for harsh sanctions. States should adapt their laws on juvenile crime to emphasize evidence-based treatment and to avoid harsh punishment for all but repeat violent offenders. (From “Keeping Adolescents out of Prison,” by Laurence Steinberg and Ron Haskins).  This issue was discussed in depth at recent Future of Children conference on this topic. 

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