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Friday, September 30, 2005

By William L. Bainbridge

Putting Tax Money On The Bottom Line

On a recent trip through Georgia, it was time for an important ice cream stop near the center of the state.

"Could I please have the smallest hot fudge sundae you can make, " I said.

"Do you want nuts?" the 17 year-old high school senior behind the counter responded.

"Yes please, pecans (with the emphasis on the pe) " I said.

" You mean pecans (with the emphasis on the cans) " she responded.

" Is that the way Jimmy Carter would pronounce pecans? " she was asked in my best imitation of her pronunciation.

With a blank stare she looked at me. After repeating myself, she said, " Who is Jimmy Carter? "

She had lived in the " Peach State" all of her life and made it clear she had never heard of Jimmy Carter. Carter had been Governor there, before being elected President. She will be eligible to vote next year. Her co-worker, also a high school senior, was flabbergasted and embarrassed.

Scenarios like this one make it clear why multi-billionaire Bill Gates recently turned his interest toward public high schools. There is no doubt Gates is doing some great things with his " Gates Millennium Scholars" program. He claims many of our "high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded."

Gates is undoubtedly correct that improvement in high schools needs to be made, especially in areas where poor people live. Public opinion polls generally support the idea that citizens want improvements at the high school level. Recent evidence, however, indicates in times of limited resources, we should re-focus our efforts and dollars on early childhood education.
  • University of Chicago Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman recently analyzed the data and concluded, " Early childhood development is a powerful economic investment, one with far greater potential returns than any later-in-life job or educational training programs."
  • Economist Clive Belfield and researcher Dennis Winters have co-authored an important new study documenting the benefits of focusing on the education of children much younger than high school age. Their new economic impact study reports that for every $1 put into preparing 4-year-olds for learning, schools would save 68 cents on later costs such as special education and teacher turnover. They caution that programs have to be high-quality - meaning, among other things, that teachers should have certain qualifications and the student-teacher ratio should not grow too large - for benefits to result.
  • A recent study from the Rand Corp. found that high-quality universal pre-kindergarten would return to society $2 to $4 for every $1 invested.
  • Another significant and rigorous study was released recently at the University of Virginia. It demonstrates the quality of 1st grade teachers who provide instructional and emotional support can improve academic outcomes for 1st graders who are considered at risk for school failure. Robert Pianta and Bridget Hamre document that children whose mothers had less than a college degree achieved at the same level as children with more highly educated mothers. Importantly, this occurred when children were placed in 1st grade classrooms where the instruction was " focused and direct and the teacher provided ongoing feedback to the students about their progress." The Virginia study even documented high results for children who were "functionally at risk."
For years, studies have been available documenting the benefits of high-quality early childhood education particularly for children from low-income families. That's because many children's parents fail to provide a " home curriculum" before their offspring attend kindergarten. There is a good deal of evidence that teaching children, especially the disadvantaged, before they reach school helps keep them from dropping out of school, becoming unemployed, receiving welfare and even turning to crime. Quality early childhood education recipients are more likely to graduate from high school, find employment and pay taxes.

Education, government and business leaders claim we can improve both elementary and secondary education simultaneously. With limited resources, the majority of school budgets continue to be directed toward high schools. We should all re-examine the concept of directing our tax money to the bottom line age group. Thankfully, many education, government and business leaders have been joining advocates to push early education as a form of economic development.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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