Kevin Drum reports on an essay by James Heckman that would be depressing if it weren’t predictable. The basic idea is expressed in this graph:
The chart shows achievement test scores for children of mothers with different levels of education. Children of college graduates score about one standard deviation above the mean by the time they’re three, and that never changes. Children of mothers with less than a high school education score about half a standard deviation below the mean by the time they’re three, and that never changes either. Roughly speaking, nothing we do after age three has much effect.
Drum echoes Heckman’s suggestion that this means we should cut way back on reform efforts aimed at secondary education, and even elementary schooling, and spend that money on early childhood interventions.
I tend to agree, with caveats. Standardized test scores don’t tell you much about how genuinely educated people are. As we see, these tests are basically measuring socioeconomic status, and one of the best things we can do to improve the next generation’s prospects is keeping kids in school, and getting them off to college, and then keeping at-risk students in college. People who drop out of high school usually do it for economic reasons, and that’s especially true of people who don’t complete college. But interventions that improve the number of students completing high school and college should have significant effects in the long run.
The focus on test-taking brought on by NCLB and the current crop of reforms can’t do much to encourage people to stay in school, or to become life-long learners. Standardized tests discourage independent study and innovative thinking, which is the name of the game in any good college, let alone high school.
There are ways that the educational system can be and should be reformed, but what this tells us is that the problems we face can’t be faced by firing teachers and shutting down schools. An educational system that raises up the lowest-performing students needs to be focused on issues of poverty, class, and race that limit students’ options.