A Caution to Early Educators

Whether passed or not, the substantial early learning provisions in President Obama’s recently-proposed budget are a clear credit to decades of hard work in the early childhood care and education community, in Washington and across the country. Advocates have done an impressive job of moving early learning into the national spotlight and building bipartisan agreement that it's a critical area worth investing in. Obama's budget acknowledges that working families need good child care so they can go to work without jeopardizing the well-being of their children. It recognizes that early education can have a life-changing, positive impact on disadvantaged kids, while also saving public dollars down the line.

But it's important to remember that getting money in the budget isn't nearly enough to realize the promise of early education. How early learning programs are designed and carried out is as important as whether they're done at all. As University of Chicago economist and early education advocate James Heckman has stressed, "quality really matters." And once programs are set in place, it's very hard to change them.

America's enormous K-12 school system is an object lesson in this problem. Our 99,000 public schools are funded at $600 billion annually and provide 50 million children with free, full-day education. Universal access is ensured. Schools are staffed with highly-qualified, credentialed professionals, all with bachelor's degrees and over half with master's degrees too.

This scaled-up system looks great on paper but has proved difficult to implement well--especially for the country's most vulnerable children. Only 29% of low-income fourth graders are proficient in reading and 25% in math. Among African-American fourth graders, just 18% are proficient in reading and 18% in math. And one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade fail to graduate from high school on time. In other words, funding and access are necessary but insufficient elements of school effectiveness.

A recent report by Families for Excellent Schools, a parent-organizing group based in New York, vividly illustrates how this problem plays out in the nation's largest school district. While New York City has gotten a lot of press for launching universal pre-K, the city's K-12 schools struggle to educate even a fraction of the children enrolled. Citywide, only 28% of fourth graders are proficient in reading and 34% in math. One hundred and forty-three thousand New York City students attend "severely failing" schools, where fewer than one in ten students can read or do math at grade level.

This is an implementation problem, not a money problem. New York City's K-12 budget has almost doubled in the last decade, from $14 billion in 2004-05 to $26 billion this year. And the city spends nearly twice as much on its worst schools as it does on its best ones. According to Families for Excellent Schools, the city's top 50 elementary schools spent $18,000 per pupil in 2014, while the bottom 50 spent $30,072 per pupil, yielding just seven percent of students at proficiency in reading and math. In fact, the 50 bottom elementary schools produced one proficient student for every $456,255 spent. The 50 bottom middle schools produced one proficient student for every $1,008,533 spent. The 50 bottom high schools produced one college-ready student for every $1,389,476 spent.

Teacher qualifications and pay aren't the problem either. New York City teachers are required to have Masters degrees. The median teacher salary is about $75,000 with summers off, generous benefits, and a hefty pension.

So while high quality early education is a great idea, it's crucial to remember that having a good idea is not the hard part. Getting the idea funded isn't even the hard part. The implementation of the idea is the hard part. That's as true for universal pre-K, child care programs, and Head Start as it is for the New York City public schools, Google Glass, and General Motors. The bottom line is that running things well is very difficult. That's why it occurs so infrequently.

A sense of urgency for quick scaling of much-needed programs is understandable, but simply securing billions of federal dollars and hoping for the best isn't sufficient. It's not that money isn't important. It's that huge amounts of money can yield very disappointing results if systems aren't designed well. Early education is worth doing, but how programs are done isn't a pesky detail. It's the whole game.