At turner elementary school in south-east Washington, dc, about 15 well-turned-out five-year-olds sit on a mat in an immaculate classroom, bellowing out an uplifting song about being ready for school and listening to the teacher. Then they act out little scenes about being good citizens, sharing and helping others. They are having fun, but of a well-controlled sort.
For many of them this may be the calmest and most enjoyable part of their day. The school is in a poor part of America’s capital and almost all its students are eligible for free or subsidized meals, which means their parents may struggle to make ends meet. The principal, Eric Bethel, says the school has made a lot of progress and achieves good academic results. It is teaching its preschool kids to read from age three.
The little children at Turner, and many of the District of Columbia’s 114 other public schools, are lucky. In 2017 about nine out of ten four-year-olds there, and seven out of ten three-year-olds, were enrolled in publicly funded preschool, the highest rate in America, says Amanda Alexander, the interim chancellor of dc’s public-school system. The schools have no trouble recruiting staff for this age group because, unusually, preschool teachers here are paid the same as those for older age groups.
Good preschool education helps get kids from poor families ready for school proper and do better in standardised tests, but it is expensive. In 2017 dcspent about $17,000 per child on this item, far and away the most of any American state. Average preschool spending across America in 2017 was about $5,000, a drop in real terms compared with 2002. Seven states had no programme at all.
Early-childhood education and care is attracting a surge of interest in most rich countries. Increasingly, it is moving out of the home and into institutions, a process experts inelegantly call “defamilization”. Across the OECD, average enrollment of three- to five-year-olds rose from 75% in 2005 to 85% in 2016.
One reason, as already noted, is to make it easier for women to go out to work, which boosts gdp and saves the state money in family support. In some countries this has been an explicit policy objective. Britain, for example, some years ago introduced free child care for 15 hours a week, and of 30 hours a week provided the parents work, for all three- and four-year-olds, regardless of background. But a paper by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank, found that this was likely to have only a slight impact on maternal employment. Even 30 hours a week would not be long enough to squeeze in a full-time job.
Kate Greenaway Nursery School, run by the local authority in Islington, North London, is a confidence-inspiring place full of happy, busy children. It is open weekdays from 8am to 6pm, including holidays, so it provides effective cover for working families. As well as taking three-and-four-year-olds, it offers subsidized places for kids from six months to three years. These cost from £125 to £300 a week, depending on what parents earn. The head, Fiona Godfrey, says the places for younger children are in high demand. Good-quality private nurseries can cost even more and offer less. Child-care costs in Britain as a proportion of average incomes are among the world’s highest (see chart).
In France, the ubiquitous, subsidised écoles maternelles, which take children from the age of two, have long been the envy of working mothers elsewhere in Europe; and Germany has recently increased the number of child-care places for younger children, though provision is patchy. Sabine Bermann, head of a heavily oversubscribed Kita (Kindertagesstätte, or child day-care centre) in Berlin’s rapidly gentrifying Prenzlauer Berg district, explains that parents have a legal right to a place for any child over the age of one. In Berlin they pay only for meals; some other German Länder (states) make charges ranging from modest to quite steep. But the promise rings hollow because the better Kitas have long waiting lists.
Denmark, along with other Nordics, had the debate about institutional care for young children 30 or 40 years ago and decided to make it universal, says Charlotte Ringsmose, who teaches pedagogy at Aarhus University. Attendance at preschool centres and kindergartens among three- to six-year-olds is around 98%. Danish child-care centres focus on play rather than formal tuition. Children do not learn to read until they start school proper at six, but then catch up fast. And Danes do not shop around for early-years child care because the nearest state-run place is usually just fine. Kids from the least well-off families go free, and even those with richer parents are heavily subsidised. Perhaps not coincidentally, both fertility rates and female labour-market-participation rates in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries—which have similar arrangements—are above the European average.
But Denmark’s universal child-care provision also has a more ideological side to it. The idea is to make sure that all children, whatever their background, are steeped in the country’s language, culture and values early enough to shape them for life. Last year the (right-wing) government controversially introduced legislation to require children living in designated poor neighbourhoods inhabited mainly by immigrants, which it calls “ghettos”, to attend day care for at least 25 hours a week from the age of one.
Recent advances in neurology and child psychology have shown that the period from birth to age five, when the brain is at its most plastic, is the most important in a child’s development, and that interventions during that period can be much more effective than later ones. Children from prosperous, educated backgrounds start off with a huge advantage because they already get a lot of stimulation and informal learning at home. But institutional early education and care, if done right, can help level the playing field for those from less privileged backgrounds.
The doyen of this school of thought is James Heckman of the University of Chicago, who has long argued that government investment in early childhood in institutional care pays off both for individuals and for society at large. He calculates the return on investment in high-quality birth-to-five education at between 7% and 13%. In evidence he cites two long-term studies of children from poor homes that began decades ago, the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan and the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, which suggest that offering extra support for such children pays off not just in academic results but also in social and economic outcomes: better health, less poverty, less crime.
As a follow-up, Mr. Heckman and colleagues evaluated a raft of other American early childhood programmes. These included Head Start, a long-standing federal preschool programme designed to get poorer kids ready for school, which had been criticised by other scholars because the academic improvements it achieved seemed to fade over time. But Mr Heckman’s team reckoned that taking part in the programme did help the children in other ways, fostering social and emotional skills that turned out to be important in later life.
Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, studied a representative group of American children, tracking their progress from the earliest years through school and beyond. They, too, found that well-targeted interventions—such as providing advice for parents and extra support for struggling children—improved the chances of disadvantaged kids becoming middle class when they grow up. Getting in early was crucial, and the best results were achieved by intervening several times from early childhood to early adulthood. The resulting boost to the incomes of those children in later life was about ten times greater than the cost of the programmes.
The fortunate fewOn the other side of the world, in a suburb of Shanghai, the children on one of the campuses of the Fortune kindergarten are just finishing lunch. The menu alternates daily between Chinese and Western; today it is Chinese food, which seems popular. Later they will take a walk outside and listen to stories, followed by a nap, and then end their school day with games or free play.
Fortune is considered one of the best kindergartens in Shanghai. It is a private establishment with around 3,000 places for children aged from 18 months to six years, scattered among various campuses across the city. Competition to get in is fierce. Local parents are subsidised by the government, but for others, fees for the most expensive package can run to 15,000 yuan ($2,200, £1,700) a month. That buys you bilingual, bicultural teaching in Mandarin and English and even includes philosophy classes for five- to six-year-olds, explains Stephen Walshe, Fortune’s Irish co-principal.
Most important, though, it offers a head start in a highly competitive system leading from kindergarten to primary, middle and senior school and eventually on to university. Better-off mothers often stop work for a while to make sure their child reaches that vital first rung on the educational ladder. For ambitious Chinese parents, formal learning cannot start soon enough. - The Economist
Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives, by Dean Buonomano
“Excellent. . . . [Buonomano] reveals the intricate limitations and blessings of the most complex device in the known universe.”―The Atlantic
The human brain may be the best piece of technology ever created, but it’s far from perfect. Drawing on colorful examples and surprising research, the neuroscientist Dean Buonomano exposes the blind spots and weaknesses that beset our brains and lead us to make misguided personal, professional, and financial decisions. Whether explaining why we are susceptible to advertisements or demonstrating how false memories are formed, Brain Bugs not only explains the brain’s inherent flaws but also gives us the tools to counteract them.
From our susceptibility to advertising and propaganda to the biases of our memory to how word choice sways our decisions, Buonomano treks across evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, neurobiology, philosophy, theory of mind and a number of other disciplines. -- brainpickings.org
Twenty years ago this spring, George W. Bush announced that he was forming an exploratory committee as a precursor to his first run for the presidency. In the announcement, he pledged to improve America’s schools, “set high standards, and insist on results” so as to “make sure that not one single child gets left behind.” An era of ambitious education reform had begun.
Two decades later, after sweeping efforts that included No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core, are our schools better off? The answer is less reassuring than one would hope. On the whole, it’s certainly possible to find some evidence of improvement — but progress is easiest to find in the metrics most amenable to manipulation.
State tests in reading and math do appear to demonstrate that schools have significantly improved over the last 20 years. Between 2005 and 2009, as No Child Left Behind took full effect, the share of students who proved to be proficient in state tests rose by 1 to 2 percent per year. Over the next six years, state assessments were too varied to allow for meaningful comparison. But the same trend — with the share of proficient students increasing by 1 to 2 percent each year — did reemerge after 2015, when standardized Common Core tests became widely used. And high-school-graduation rates also skyrocketed, from 71 percent in 1997 to 85 percent in 2017.
Good news, right? Not exactly. The politicos and state education officials claiming credit for these gains are the same ones who choose state tests, define what qualifies as “proficient,” and monitor graduation rates to guard against funny business. The results are tied into state accountability systems, where lousy results can produce practical and political headaches. Thus, policymakers have both the means and the incentive to inflate the numbers any way they can.
Fortunately, the U.S. also regularly administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to a random, nationally representative set of schools. Because the NAEP isn’t linked to state accountability systems, it’s a good way to check the seemingly positive results of state tests. From 2000 to 2017 (the most recent year for which data is available), NAEP scores showed that fourth-grade math results increased 14 points, which reflects a bit more than one year of extra learning. Eighth-grade math results also demonstrated significant improvement, increasing ten points in the same period. Fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores, meanwhile, barely budged. And almost all of the math gains were made in the decade from 2000 to 2010; performance has pretty much flatlined since then.
Put another way, the NAEP results raise hard questions about those cheery state-test results and graduation rates. George Washington University’s Center on Education Policy, for instance, analyzed the annual increase in the percentage of students whose NAEP results demonstrated proficiency and the percentage of students whose state tests demonstrated proficiency from 2005 to 2009. It found that, depending on the subject and grade, average gains on state assessments outpaced NAEP gains by 50 to over 100 percent. In other words, state-reported gains vastly exceeded the gains on NAEP. Similarly, high-school-graduation scandals and analysis of “credit recovery” programs have raised serious concerns about the validity of the dramatic graduation-rate gains.
Given the disparity between state tests and independent national results, it’s useful to see what the results look like on international tests. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the only major international assessment of both reading and math performance. While PISA has its share of limitations, it offers a wholly independent view of American education and accountability systems.
From the time PISA was first administered in 2000 to the most recent results from 2015, U.S. scores have actually declined, while America’s international ranking has remained largely static. Average American reading scores have declined from 504 to 497, and average American math scores have declined from 483 to 470. Compared to other nations in the same time span, the U.S.’s world ranking dropped from 15th to 23rd in reading, and from 19th to 39th in math. (The number of nations participating has increased significantly over that time, from 43 to 72, so it’s fair to say that relative American performance has remained about the same.)
The PISA results should concern anyone eager to insist that 20 years of accountability-based school reform has obviously “worked,” even when we limit the discussion to K–8 math instruction.
Evaluating the success of any reform effort starts with a careful accounting. And a fair assessment of the two decades since President Bush’s bold challenge would admit that there has been a lot of action, but not much in the way of demonstrated improvement. Just why this is the case remains an open question. But going forward, education-reform proposals must start by acknowledging that the status quo appears deeply flawed the minute one looks below the surface of the numbers.
While there are many reasons why public education performs poorly in the United States, the overriding cause is that it operates as a monopolistic system. Education is one area where improvement is genuinely in all of our interests. Public education can be improved through expanding the supply of schools, empowering parents, and diversifying within the existing monopoly.