Thinking education through

I’m a great friend to the cause of education. Our state constitution features one of the most eloquent preambles to the section on the duty of operating a free school system: “Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the state shall ever …”

In the Jeffersonian tradition, I’m convinced that any civilization that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be.

Thus it was refreshing to read that Arkansas is a top-10 state in an education category, namely in resources committed to pre-kindergarten education.

Hats off to the state Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education, which Tonya Russell heads up, for its leadership. In an informative guest column, Russell cited research supporting pre-K programs in general and Arkansas’ achievements in the program in particular.

Statistics can be malleable, subject to contextual usage and interpretation, and sometimes confusing when it’s difficult to accurately attribute cause and effect. For example, there appears to be a strong correlation between early education and desirable outcomes that include performance in high school, productivity at work and stability in family life.

However, research tracking such outcomes would have to use sampled populations at least in their late 20s or early 30s-meaning that they would have attended preschool 25 to 30 years ago when almost all pre-K programs were privately run and tuition-based.

In other words, parents of students in pre-K in the early 1980s normally had to pay for their children’s preschooling. The willingness to invest in preschool could be indicative of a higher-than-average level of parental participation in general among the group, which has long been one of the strongest indicators of school performance.

Another statistical quandary arises over the apparent disconnect in some states between highly ranked state pre-K programs and the associated predictive outcomes.

Consider that only three states appeared in both top-10 rankings in The State of Preschool Yearbook 2011 for pre-K access and for resources per child enrolled: Arkansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Those three states fare poorly in state comparisons in percentage of population with a high school diploma (Arkansas is 49th, Oklahoma is 36th and West Virginia is 47th) and percentage with a bachelor’s degree (Arkansas 50th, Oklahoma 43rd and West Virginia 51st).

Economically, the trio doesn’t do much better, either ranked by state gross domestic product per capita (Arkansas 49th, Oklahoma 47th, West Virginia 50th) or personal income per capita (Arkansas 49th, Oklahoma 41st, West Virginia 48th). When ranked according to divorce rate, Arkansas is second in the nation, Oklahoma is fourth and West Virginia is ninth. And in the CQ Press annual state crime rankings, which compare state rates in six categories with the national average,both Arkansas and Oklahoma made the 15 Most Dangerous States (Arkansas 10th, Oklahoma 13th). West Virginia parted company and landed at 11th on the 15 Most Safe States list.

Those collective statistics appear to challenge research showing that preschool increases graduation rates and worker productivity, and that states with high pre-K enrollment rates benefit from greater family stability and lower crime.

That doesn’t mean pre-K isn’t a worthwhile effort, however. On the contrary, common sense tells us that applying a high-quality curriculum with qualified teachers to 4-year-olds should better prepare them for school.

But common sense also cautions us that a state education apparatus that processes children for 13 years and still produces an undesirable remediation rate (52 percent for all public colleges) deserves scrutiny before its scope is expanded to 14 or 15 years. The system needs more than just a tweak when students are taught math and English in school for three-quarters of their childhood, and half of them still have to retake those classes in college.

Improving remediation rates should be a priority. Not only are extra dollars spent to bring a high school graduate up to speed for college course work, but marginal students are more likely to drop out. College dropouts create both waste and cost. Not only is money (such as the lottery scholarship) wasted in a failed effort, but a degree-less student doesn’t have much more earning power-perhaps even less-than if he or she had simply pursued employment right out of high school.

The success of Arkansas’ preschool program should be an inspiration to think through K-12 education with open eyes and an open mind. As we ponder the multibillion-dollar enterprise that is the public school system, it’s important to maintain a willingness to, if necessary, make hamburger out of the herd of sacred cows on the education ranch.

That means using results—not process—as the primary accountability measures for individual schools. Standards based on elements other than learning aren’t really education standards at all. What good is centralized or systematic uniformity on metrics such as spending per pupil if there’s enormous disparity in school performance?

Learning is the ultimate standard. When students are learning, a school is successful. And when they aren’t, it isn’t. It really is that simple.


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