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Commentary: Why Susie can't read

If there’s agreement on anything having to do with education policy in Michigan, it is that we aren’t getting the results we need.

Too many students are emerging from school with too few skills to make them competitive for jobs, not to mention the intellectual resources to live fulfilled and happy lives.

And our leaders are locked in increasingly bitter debates over what to do about this. Democrats blame conservatives for cutting education budgets and demonizing teachers and their unions. Republicans want to divert funding from traditional public schools and encourage parents to let free enterprise charter schools do the job.

But now there is significant evidence that both sets of arguments miss the real reason many Susies and Johnnies can’t read. The problem is that we are focusing on the wrong age group.

According to the work of the one Nobel Prize winning economist studying the issue, we need to vastly increase funding to reach children not only under five, the age they normally start kindergarten, but before age three. After that, it may actually be too late.

Phil Power, the founder of the non-profit Center for Michigan, brought this to my attention with a new column in his online magazine Bridge.

He has been looking at international data compiled by James Heckman of the University of Chicago. What it suggests, Power says, is that “we may want to demolish the entire conventional U.S. approach to education.”

Heckman found that disadvantaged children gain the most from spending very early in their lives. The United States spends less on making sure preschool children are ready to learn than nearly every other developed industrial nation.

What I found most disturbing is that the evidence shows that after age three, it isn’t only that our schools are failing reach children who are behind. It is that they apparently no longer can.

“The gap is there before kids walk into kindergarten,“ Heckman told the New York Times. “School neither increases or reduces it.”

He bases this on hundreds of low-birth weight babies, who were tested at ages three, five, eight and 18. There was a dramatic difference in how the three-year-olds did, a difference entirely due to the environments in which they lived.

Those whose mothers had graduated from college scored vastly higher than those whose mothers hadn’t finished high school.

Brains need to be stimulated early. There are other international studies that confirm Heckman’s diagnosis.

Now the Obama administration has doubled the amount of money being spent on Pell grants, designed to help the poorest students attend college. But it now seems that is way too late. President Obama indicates he agrees with Heckman’s analysis, but it has made little or no policy difference.

Fixing this won’t be easy. Even if we become willing to spend the needed money, it’s not clear how you change the home environments of millions of disadvantaged babies and toddlers.

This would require the equivalent of an education revolution. And that would be hard, expensive and scary.

But it is clear that what we are doing now isn’t working. And wouldn’t it be something if Michigan somehow had the daring to try to lead the nation on what may well be the most important issue facing our society today?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.