Early Childhood

Scholars Push Ideas to Bolster U.S. Workforce

By Rhea R. Borja — February 20, 2007 6 min read
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Wide-ranging changes aimed at improving education from the early years through college are needed to produce a workforce with the skills demanded by today’s increasingly global economy, scholars with the Brookings Institution argue in a set of policy papers released last week.

The papers from the Hamilton Project, an economic-policy initiative of the Washington-based think tank, call for investing in early-childhood education, reforming teacher pay and hiring, and simplifying the college financial-aid process.

“We need to home in much more specifically on what we need to do in the areas of education, grounded in evidence, not ideology,” Jason Furman, the director of the Hamilton Project, said in a conference call with reporters. Brookings launched the project last year to generate policy options aimed at bolstering the U.S. economy.

Project leaders say the United States spends more on education than other countries, but does not get better outcomes. They call for efforts to bolster education based on performance-based measurement and accountability, market forces, and experimentation in educational policies.

Revving Up Preschool

In one paper, Brookings senior fellows Jens Ludwig and Isabel V. Sawhill propose what they call “Head Start on steroids,” a two-part proposal to improve early education for poor children.

Read the Hamilton Project papers, posted by the Brookings Institution.

Research has shown that educating children as early as four months of age through an academically rigorous curriculum improves their job opportunities later in life, the authors say in their paper, “Success by Ten.” Mr. Ludwig is a professor of public policy at Georgetown University in Washington, and Ms. Sawhill is a co-director of Brookings’ Center on Children and Families.

The Brookings scholars say the federal government should consolidate, augment, and change the early-education infrastructure, including the federal Title I, Head Start, and Early Head Start programs, by forming a single, intensive program along the lines of the University of North Carolina’s Abecedarian program.

That research project, which began in 1972 and tracked low-income students from their first year of life until age 21, provided all-day, year-round education for the first five years of participating children’s lives. It used teachers who were paid on the same scale as those in public schools.

“A lot of the disparities in children’s outcomes open up even before kids reach Head Start age,” Mr. Ludwig said, citing gaps between poor and middle-class children, as well as between white and some minority children. Early Head Start serves children up to 3 years old, and Head Start serves children ages 3 to 5.

The authors also propose that high-poverty schools spend their federal Title I funds on evidence-based early-literacy programs such as Success for All. That approach should be phased in over 10 years, they suggest.

Federal funding for preschool under the Brookings proposal would almost double, from $7 billion to $13 billion a year, the authors say. Mr. Ludwig argued that the increased spending would pay dividends in the long term. For every dollar spent on early education, society could reap up to $2 in increased tax revenue, he said.

“There’s a good case to be made that implementing this proposal would reduce grade retention, smoking and drug use, and [increase] long-term earning prospects,” Mr. Ludwig said.

Targeting Teachers

The Hamilton Project also recommends changes in K-12 policies on teacher salaries and hiring, calling for merit-based pay and the removal of barriers to entering the field.

Almost 20 percent of school districts’ budgets goes to fulfilling provisions of teachers’ contracts, such as seniority-based raises, that have a “weak impact” on learning, Mr. Furman and other Hamilton Project scholars contend. That money, they reason, could be better spent on rewarding teachers with excellent performance, who work in high-needs schools, or who have specialties that are in high demand, such as mathematics and science.

Removing barriers to entering the teaching field can also help improve teacher quality, Mr. Furman and his colleagues argue, and they recommend focusing on teacher effectiveness on the job, instead of teaching credentials, to hire and evaluate teachers.

“People can look good on paper, but turn out to be ineffective in the classroom, and those who lack paper qualifications can turn out to be remarkably effective as teachers,” write Mr. Furman, Hamilton Project policy director Jason Bordoff, and project assistant Joshua Bendor, in “An Education Strategy to Promote Opportunity, Prosperity, and Growth.”

College-Aid Shifts

Meanwhile, college should be made more accessible to low-income students by simplifying the “broken” federal financial-aid system, argue Susan M. Dynarski, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Judith E. Scott-Clayton, a doctoral candidate there, in the paper “College Grants on a Postcard.”

Staying Out Front

The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project has outlined proposed changes in early education, teacher quality, and college financial aid that it says would “foster the creativity, innovation, and analytical rigor necessary to keep America at the leading frontier of [the] global economy.”

• Consolidate and heighten the academic rigor of the federal Early Head Start and Head Start programs so that every poor child can enroll in an intensive, high-quality education program through age 5.

• Require that elementary schools spend their federal Title I funds on proven instructional programs to strengthen poor children’s skills and safeguard against “fade out” of preschool gains.

• Reform teacher pay to reward exceptional performance, teaching in disadvantaged schools, and expertise in math and science.

• Refocus the teacher-hiring process to put a premium on instructional effectiveness rather than certification and credentials.

• Encourage experimentation with, and rigorously evaluate, nontraditional means of delivering education, such as charter schools.

• Simplify the federal financial-aid process for college students by reducing application paperwork and combining educational grants and tax incentives into one grant program.

SOURCE: Brookings Institution

Federal financial-aid forms are more complicated than tax forms, Ms. Dynarski said, noting that families must answer 127 questions in the five-page “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” Instead, she argued, all of the needed questions and answers should fit on a postcard.

The authors also say that once families apply for federal financial aid, they often don’t learn how much aid they will get until their children have been admitted to college. To speed up the process, Ms. Dynarski and Ms. Scott-Clayton recommend combining federal student aid such as Pell Grants and the Hope and Lifetime Learning income-tax credits into one grant program.

Families could then apply for a grant simply by checking a box on their income-tax forms. Then they would receive a voucher through the mail or the Internet that could be used to pay for college.

“Many who fear college is unaffordable will never even apply to college, much less apply for aid and matriculate,” the authors state. “Knowing that college is affordable could push kids to work harder in high school, instead of giving up on themselves.”

Reaction Mixed

Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that is generally supportive of labor unions, praised the Hamilton Project’s call for bolstering early-learning opportunities for poor children. But he criticized the merit-pay proposal as a short-term solution that would benefit few teachers, whom he characterized as underpaid.

As for simplifying the financial-aid process, Mr. Mishel said that while streamlining application forms could be useful, college-going rates would not rise significantly without substantial increases in the amounts of aid available for students of modest means. “It’s not a solution at the scale of the problem,” he said.

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that favors free-market policy approaches, says that of the three proposals, the financial-aid recommendation was something “anybody in the higher education access debate can get behind.”

Mr. Hess called the proposals on teachers “great stuff” that could signal a split between labor unions and old-line Democrats, on the one hand, and “New Democrats” such as U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, a presidential candidate from Illinois, on the other. He said that while the idea of expanding preschool is now popular, that proposal could be the least compelling for political conservatives.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Scholars Push Ideas to Bolster U.S. Workforce

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