Putting Our Money on a Winning Proposition

In education, the focus is often on people first, results second, and the money third.  We think of the teachers and the students, then on achievement, and only then do we really start talking about dollars.  We talk of per student costs, and compare our per-pupil spending with similar districts or with those who are outperforming us.  The punchline, inevitably, is that we need more dollars for our classrooms.

Eduflack was taken by the discussion of two pricetags this Sunday morning, one depicting the worst of times, the other the possible best of the future.  The first was a preview of Ted Koppel’s program this evening on California’s prison system.  By his numbers, it is now $43,200 per year to send a student to Harvard University.  It costs the State of California $43,000 per year to incarcerate an individual (and that person gets $200 upon leaving prison to get their lives started).  

We can leave it to the economists and statisticians to tell us the long-term community effect of moving a quarter of those individuals from prison into a two- or four-year postsecondary institution.  The effect of seeing there are opportunities that come from schoolhouse doors, rather than leading to prison doors.  It’s an age-old fight, but it is one that still remains important, particularly as we now see that postsecondary education is a necessary piece to a successful life.

As disheartening as the Koppel numbers are, education reformers around the nation should take note of the second pricetag, featured in a column written in today’s Washington Post by Marc Fisher.  (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/06/AR2007100601111.html?hpid=topnews)  We’ve all talked the talk on student preparedness for postsecondary education.  We’ve recited the numbers on remediation and how the majority of today’s high school grads simply lack the skills to succeed in college.  Now we have a response.  

In his piece, Fisher throws a spotlight on an important initiative happening on the campus of the University of the District of Columbia.  At UDC, professors saw a 50-percent dropout rate in organic chemistry courses.  And for those who stuck in the class, nearly a third received Fs.  All of this in a course required of those students seeking a career in medicine.

On top of that, 80 percent of UDC students were taking remedial math classes.  Makes it so one is ready to just give up on trying to encourage UDC’s students — many low-income or minority or first-generation college-goers — to prepare for college, attend college, stay in college, and graduate with the ability to earn jobs in demanding fields like medicine, engineering, math, and such.

UDC’s solution?  A summer program designed to provide college readiness to UDC’s incoming freshmen and fill the instructional gaps left by DCPS (since that’s where many of UDC’s students come from).  By UDC’s count, the program is reaping major rewards.  And the cost?  About $2,000 per student.

Currently, the UDC program is only serving a small number of students, working from grant money from The Washington Post Co. and the federal government.  But the early indications are positive, with unexpected consequences.  The math intervention effort is not only boosting math ability, but it has raised reading scores for those students 10 percent.

Sure, it’s a pilot.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea.  As we look at the best ways to spend our education dollars, as we look at ways to increase college readiness and college going in underserved communities, maybe, just maybe, UDC is on to something.  At the very least, they’ve demonstrated it doesn’t take the largest check to generate measurable results.  Our K-12 schools and the defenders of the status quo could learn a lot from that.

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