This week, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by a Nobel-laureate economist - and it wasn't Milton Friedman espousing the benefits of vouchers! Indeed, it was a column undercutting the school reform movement that Friedman helped spawn. James J. Heckman asserts that "a major finding from the research literature is that schools and school quality contribute little to the emergence of test-score gaps among children. By the second grade, gaps in ranks of test scores across socioeconomic groups are stable, suggesting that later schooling has little effect in reducing or widening the gaps that appear before students enter school." He continues by saying that "the best way to improve schools is to improve the students sent to them." This is best done, in his view, by investing in high-quality preschool initiatives such as the Perry Preschool Program. We have no complaints with rigorous, academically oriented, early childhood programs (see Eric Osberg's short review, below), though these are few and far between, and we would agree with Heckman that the track record of the K-12 system is uninspiring. But that's precisely why we need to implement strategies (like those in place at the KIPP Academies and other "culture of achievement" schools) that can, and do, give poor and minority students a fighting chance. Giving up on the schools' ability to turn around students' lives not only lets educators off the hook for poor pupil performance, it is akin to writing off millions of American kids. Perhaps economics truly is the "dismal science."
"Catch 'em Young," by James J. Heckman, Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2006 (paid subscription required)