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Why Actually Working Isn’t Enough to Defend Effective Education Ideas

Conor Williams: Worthwhile education policies backed by strong evidence are undermined when they can’t solve everything

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There’s an old conversational set piece in the lively world of early education policy that goes something like this: a study comes out showing that pre-K programs do a solid job of raising children’s knowledge and skills, and even improve kindergarten readiness, but seem to be less effective at producing higher third-grade reading scores or some other longer-term academic metric. 

As critics pounce, advocates for greater pre-K investments grumble, “Look, the study showed that pre-K was solidly effective at preparing kids for kindergarten. Why are we measuring its value in terms of metrics that come way later? By that logic, we shouldn’t just end pre-K investments … we should also cancel 2nd grade (and maybe the rest of early elementary school).”

To be sure, there’s a huge research base showing that early education programs are effective. They’re among the most efficient educational investments we can make! But that doesn’t stop us replaying the aforementioned pattern. 

It’s a weird tendency in education debates: we blame good, tested, and effective ideas for not solving the full extent of U.S. inequities. Even the best ideas — the ones that help students succeed, the ones that close divisions in schools and society — rarely get credit for their efficacy. So pre-K debates have less to do with whether pre-K works at preparing kids for kindergarten, and more with whether it “works” on some other array of distant metrics. 

Folks in education do this all the time. Take charter schools, for example. Over the past several decades, a bevy of studies have shown that when charters are opened and overseen by rigorous authorizers, they can significantly improve academic achievement, particularly for students from historically marginalized communities. In the 2010s, researchers at Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) released several studies showing that well-regulated charters tend to be particularly effective for raising the test scores of English learners, students from low-income families, and African-American students. A 2021 analysis of charter schools’ academic performance found similarly encouraging results across the country. 

But as a policy idea, charter schools are besieged with criticism for “failing” to fully close achievement gaps in all places and at all times. It’s not that there’s no room for criticism of charter schools; indeed, studies have shown that charter schools with weak quality and oversight provisions tend to generally be less effective than comparable public schools. It’s just that, too often, even successful charter school sectors are regularly blamed for not yet having defeated the full breadth of systemic racism and economic inequality in American life. 

Why is this? The blame cuts in two directions, but both have to do with how we define effectiveness of particular programs. First: advocates for certain education reforms often set up their ideas for failure. Pre-K advocates spent many years promising that universal pre-K could close achievement gaps before they begin to widen, obviate the need for controversial K-12 reforms by raising academic achievement, increase participants’ future incomes and lower their chances of incarceration as adults, and etc, etc, etc. Against that backdrop, is it any wonder that pre-K programs that simply prepare kids to succeed in kindergarten feel like flops? 

This kind of overpromising can be useful for drawing attention to a policy idea, but advocates ought to recognize that inflated rhetoric comes with the cost of raising expectations well beyond what they can likely deliver. (Note: there is some evidence that pre-K programs with modest short-term academic impacts may still improve participants’ long-term life outcomes.)

Second: policy critiques are almost always driven more by prior political preferences than the facts on the ground. Sure, when new ideas arrive in public education, critics justifiably warn against “experimenting on schools and kids.” But as the evidentiary base gets better for a particular idea over time, critics shift to less honest work—muddying the measurement waters. If pre-K seems to be really effective at improving children’s school readiness and long-term outcomes, critics who loathe public investment in education and pine for traditional one-income households with stay-at-home mothers caring for kids … find it easy to redefine successful pre-K as something else (e.g. elementary school test scores). 

If, with sufficient public oversight, charter schools produce strong academic outcomes for historically marginalized children, critics who worry that charter schools divert resources and attention from traditional school districts … find it easy to frame those successes out of the picture by measuring charters against other benchmarks (even those that also also elude traditional public schools). For instance, it’s frustrating to see charter schools attacked for allegedly refusing to enroll hard-to-serve students who might be at risk of failing to graduate on time, absent evidence that this is systemically happening (and in the presence of evidence that such “creaming” also occurs in traditional public schools).

To be sure, the design, implementation, and defense of new education policies are always going to be plagued by politics. That’s a basic element of living in a democracy. But we really need to stop blaming good-faith efforts to improve schools for failing to solve American racism, economic inequality, etc. 

Instead, we ought to think of education reforms as stackable. Nearly every study shows that developmentally appropriate, well-funded pre-K is good for kids—but it’s not enough to eliminate all American social inequities. Indeed, a system of high-quality pre-K that feeds into an equitably funded system of effective K-12 schools…is also likely to fall short. (Add in paid family leave, affordable high-quality child care, and a monthly child allowance, though, and we might really be getting somewhere.) 

But that’s no excuse for doing nothing. The roots of racist inequities against communities of color are centuries deep and systemically wide; undoing them requires sustained reforms at all levels.

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