The Test Score Gap: Why Concentrate On Programs That, Even If They Did Work, Would Take Years?
October 07, 2012, 02:37 PM
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For a long time, I've been pointing out that nobody really knows terribly much about effective policies to improve the the educational and economic performance of people already in America, so we shouldn't ignore the impact of policies influencing who is in America (e.g., immigration, affordable family formation for the middle class, encourage the poor to use contraception, and so forth).

One obvious argument with that is that the payoffs are years away. There would seem to be a long lag time. So, the conventional wisdom is, let's just ignore all that long run stuff and concentrate on fixing the people we've currently got.

But, you'll notice, over the years the conventional wisdom has slowly come to admit defeat at fixing The Gap between the races at later ages. So, the emphasis on interventions keeps getting pushed earlier and earlier in life. Currently, all the excitement is focused on pre-K. If only we can fix things up for poor children before they start kindergarten, then we will find out decades later that we have closed The Gap! (And when that proves not to work, then all the attention will be focused upon the first 12 months of life. And then when that fizzles out, the Big Thing will be pre-natal care. And then it will be the first hour after conception. And then the first second after conception.)

Of course, we don't yet know how to fix things up pre-K, so we need to first to do many years of research to find replicable programs. To quote again from Princeton social scientist Thomas J. Espenhade in the New York Times:

We need more research into the impact of factors like diet and nutrition, the amount of time parents talk and read with their kids, exposure to electronic screen time, sleep routines and the way stress outside the home affects family life. But we already know that an expansion of early-childhood education is urgently needed, along with programs, like peer-to-peer mentoring, that help low-income families support their children’s learning. The first few years of life are the most critical ones, when parental investments and early-childhood interventions have a higher payoff than at later ages, particularly for disadvantaged children. 

So, when is the interventionist solution going to actually pay off? 

Espenhade briefly alludes to the problem with the conventional wisdom at the end of his piece:

In 2003, in the Grutter decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that she expected such preferences to disappear within 25 years — by 2028. The children who would go off to college that year are already 2 years old.

So, apparently, O'Connor's obiter dicta, along with the cohorts she was talking about are already doomed. They are already two years old, and they haven't been read Goodnight, Moon enough times or eaten enough organic baby food or whatever, and so we already know The Gap will still be around in 2028. Heck, we need decades of research to figure out what to do before we can start doing it. 

Okay, so if the mainstream approaches to solving the problems caused by The Gap are both unproven and even if they worked would work glacially slow, why not get started now on selectionist solutions?