School Reform, Politics, and Culture: Can We Performance Base Ourselves to the Promised Land?

Summary: Enshrining performance and research based thinking deeply into school reform, and investing accordingly, will invite best practices, promote better life success for students, and in the long run restrict the body of poor outcomes – incarceration, chronic poverty, etc. – that drain the treasury.
Over time and in diverse media, I’ve come across assertions such as “every dollar spent on preventive human services saves four dollars down the road.” The latter comes from TIME magazine and the date may well have been 1966. (Only my body is that old!) Seldom did the article or TV program expose the assertion to scrutiny, though the research somewhere back in the chain of information may have been sound, nor did I inquire deeply myself into the buttressing research, partly due to my once upon a time poor decision to duck statistics in graduate school. Mostly these assertions fit my prejudices, and/or aligned with my gut instincts as a veteran human resource worker, and so I have accepted them at face value, while lamenting that such rational considerations seldom inform funding decisions in the political arena anyway.
In education in particular, precious little quality research has guided instructional practice or school structure, and what little is clear from existing research – that the quality of adult relationships with at risk kids improves their outcomes – seems not to impact the political funding of schools, for if it were, staffing levels would be closer to adequate than they are. Apparently our Republican colleagues, in answer to voters who resist taxation and a vigorous public sector, prefer to spend a great deal more money later on incarceration and the assorted much more expensive programs that respond to such later stage social failures.
Republican demagoguery aside, I have some sympathy for the weary voter whom we need to convince that her money is spent in a rational way, as an investment in tried and true formulas that will enrich the society and ultimately benefit her and hers.
Schools in my experience tend to lurch from one new idea to another, and too seldom platform sustainably on practices deeply grounded in well vetted research (though I concede the zeitgeist seems to be changing). That said, case in point, where is the well vetted research that establishes the current testing frenzy as the route to thoroughgoing educational improvement? I rest my case.
The Gates folks have tried to base funding decisions on bed rock research, but have yet to find a holy grail. For example, at one point “small schools” was well the rage in Lower Queen Anne, but headwinds were encountered and the initiative dropped when desired outcomes proved elusive, regrettably from my point of view because I suspect smallness of setting promotes closer adult/student relationships, and so is a necessary if not wholly sufficient element of change.
We need not worry that education is a dysfunctional island separate from other human resource arenas, for example in veterans’ affairs, or young mothers, or youth violence and gangs. Same story in these latter areas: rational funding decisions based on sound social science metrics take second fiddle to political winds.
So it took a few mentions in the paper and on TV for me to take note of a promising shift in the Seattle and in particular surrounding King County’s administration of human services. Perhaps the area’s progressive politics turned scientific will move human services in a research based direction.
Whether it has been the local Gates’ search for reliable metrics in human intervention across the globe as well as near at home, or King County Executive Dow Constantine’s technocrat’s inclinations, but the county’s human services department has specified that contracts let to various satellite non-profits be performance based. In a related comment, the Seattle Times editorial board cites an unnamed study that found “$221 spent on behavioral interventions for kids in child care yields benefits (better grades, fewer disruptions, prevented crime) worth $31,741.” Similarly, a program that works with struggling young mothers must demonstrate outcomes such as infant and child health, perhaps continuing education, or other of the variety of indicators that the money has been well spent toward an identifiable outcome. Or, intervention with gang involved youth must demonstrate transitions to successful schooling, employment, and the like.
Such consciousness is progress, I believe, though another voice whispers, with incredulity, that such a standard should go without saying when the public’s money is spent.
Some of these examples border closely the liabilities of kids already in school, so the county enterprise, should it sustain, will have spill over toward the long term well-being of the kids in a proverbial Ms. Johnson’s second grade classroom with whom she works without the time to be as effective as she would like. Could these county programs pass through the membrane into the school, as a partner in Ms. Johnson’s classroom, under the same performance based philosophy? Could the old time research based algorithm of adult relationship and at risk student progress morph into much more specific interventions into student dysfunction of various types, as part and parcel of school programming, and thereby sharply diminish demands on public monies for such items as prisons and welfare down the road?
Might university departments of education, social work, psychology and the like partner closely with schools to study newly implemented ideas, and vet them for continuation or the junk heap based on hard-nosed performance criteria? I think of work I once did with groups of African American and Latino young men, which needed more of my time than I could give, and more help than I had, but which would have benefitted from the rigor a good researcher might have lent to outcome analysis. As it was, the statistics I mustered were suggestive of a modestly positive outcome, but not of the depth and breadth upon which to build funding.
In fact, school staff members in my experience often have innovative ideas that have sprung from their close engagement with their students, and the consequent recognition of need. Implementation is too often done with too little time available, too few resources tapped, and too little scientific rigor to demonstrate that any goals in fact have been achieved, and finally with marginal energy which cannot sustain a rigorous analysis and program revamp for the next phase. And so we lurch to the next good idea, last year’s good idea discarded.
My current favorite program type is those that mentor young men and women, in school or in the community. Big Brothers and Big Sisters have done so for many years. President Obama has lauded the mentor network My Brother’s Keeper. Programs in certain Seattle Public Schools, as well as elsewhere have used recent young college graduates, some of them in Americorps, to mentor at risk youth as well as specifically foster kids. All of these if memory serves me claim research based positive results. How rigorous is the research? Is it done in house by like-minded types, or have qualified and probably university based researchers independently vetted these outcomes? Do the results include savings down the road via the intervention in the present? Has the research been replicated?
If to all this the answer is “affirmative,” then can the political culture muster the will to do the right thing by these essentially innocent kids, as well as the pragmatic, longer term fiscally responsible thing? One and the same, yin and yang, my friends.
Always, there are ghosts that haunt choice points, and remind of the scale of the stakes involved in even such relatively small, local decisions such as King County’s performance based policy. Will the American experiment continue its long march to inclusion and continue its pragmatic genius, or will we slowly sink into a second world, bifurcated dead end in which the rich confront the poor and blame them for what would in fact be a collective failure?

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