by Steve Danzis
[ bookreviews ]
David Kirp’s ambition is evident in the title of his new education policy book. Kirp, a widely published professor of public policy, proposes a comprehensive education plan that by his estimate would cost around $50 billion a year. It is hard to imagine Kirp’s proposal staying afloat in the Tea Party infused waters of American politics. The more interesting question is whether such a national “cradle-to-college” plan is even desirable.
The “Kids First agenda” encompasses programs in the following areas: parenting education, preschool, community schools, mentoring, and child savings accounts. Kirp believes that a single bill should address all of these programs, as the Affordable Care Act did for healthcare reform. He also insists that the bill’s benefits should be available to every American, not just the disadvantaged. Although prominent economists have argued that subsidizing parenting programs and preschool for all income levels is not cost-effective, Kirp counters that programs aimed at the poor will never be adequately funded.
Kirp’s plan for reforming K-12 education is centered around community schools, which integrate social services and traditional instruction - as Kirp puts it, “one-stop shopping for kids.” Community schools usually form partnerships with city agencies or nonprofit organizations. They may provide medical care, tutoring, after-school activities, and summer camp for students, as well as housing assistance and job training for parents. Kirp says that community schools can play an important role in “restoring the social fabric of battered neighborhoods.”
Is this educational model ready to be implemented nationwide? Kirp believes it is, but a closer look raises doubts. Chicago, with 150 community schools, has the most extensive community schools program in the United States, yet it receives little attention - no articles about community schools have appeared in the city’s daily newspapers, and the Chicago teachers I’ve spoken with have never even heard of the program. Maybe someday there will be a consensus that community schools are a proven, cost-effective way of improving education, but we haven’t reached that point yet.
Kids First offers more substantial coverage of subsidized parenting education and preschool. Kirp describes a variety of innovative programs, some confined to a few schools, others implemented throughout a city or state. The best of these programs are carefully structured and rigorously tested. Their founders take local concerns into account and are cautious about expanding the programs too quickly.
Kirp identifies several preschool programs that are superior to the current federal preschool program, Head Start. His analysis of these programs is insightful, but one wonders whether they are succeeding in large part because they haven’t yet become massive federal programs that enroll a million students. Even if Congress and the President did get together and agree to fund Kirp’s agenda - and let’s face it, the odds of that happening are astronomical - any bill that emerged would be seriously compromised by the political process.
Paradoxically, Kirp’s book is valuable not as a blueprint for the future but as a snapshot of the present. He reminds us that there are success stories in education—programs and policies that make it more likely for poor children to get ahead in life. He finds innovation in conservative South Carolina as well as in liberal coastal cities. Some of these programs have gained support from public figures best known for pushing corporate-style reform; it’s nice to learn that they have more songs in their jukebox than attacking teachers’ unions and opening charter schools.
Kirp served on the Obama presidential transition team, and he was probably influenced by the heady optimism of those days. Yet his agenda is not only politically naive but also full of ideas that haven't been tested on a large-enough scale. Slow progress may be less inspiring than radical change, but in our current political climate it seems the best we can hope for.