Big Brother Rudd ignores the family in education
Noted US Professor of Economics James Heckman is a much quoted figure by the Australian Labor Party.
In these times of economic upheaval and challenge his message has a unique and appealing social angle – essentially his work outlines the economic benefits of investing well in early childhood education to address social disadvantage.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has quoted Heckman extensively in the past, and did so again this week in his Burgmann College Address , saying:
Heckman’s research has shown that early childhood education has positive outcomes in areas ranging from crime rates and teenage pregnancy to health and salary levels.
As Heckman notes, the evaluation and cost-benefit analysis of the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan showed that low-income children who were receiving quality child care and early education services experienced substantially better life outcomes than those who did not have the benefit of early learning opportunities.
The study found that through to age 40, and this is in US dollars, there was a return of $17 for every $1 spent. That is an extraordinary return on investment, and it shows the extraordinary importance of education.
He then went on to say that it was Heckman-style thinking that justified and underscored the importance of the Rudd Government’s so-called “education revolution”.
But there are two fundamental flaws with the way Labor interprets Heckman’s work - key planks Labor ignores because they don’t fit their education narrative:
1. Heckman stresses that enriched early education programs should be carefully targeted to disadvantaged children, not universal in nature
2. Heckman clearly outlines that strong, functioning families are important – and produce better educated students, more trained workers and better citizens
It’s perhaps not surprising that Labor ignores these aspects of James Heckman’s research. Labor’s universal access promise on preschool and their multi-billion dollar school infrastructure spend-fest are the antithesis of a “carefully targeted” program. As an economist concerned with disadvantage, I’m sure James Heckman would be mortified at the amount of money being wasted to create Julia Gillard Memorial Halls across the country.
It’s telling that Labor has budgeted nearly a billion dollars over the next 4 years for universal preschool access for all 4 year olds, $114 million to build 38 shiny new childcare centres, but just $32.5 million over the same period for the excellent targeted Home Interaction programme for Parents and Youngsters (HIPPY ) run by the Brotherhood of St Laurence to improve learning outcomes for disadvantaged children.
It’s also not surprising that Labor ignores the research suggesting that a stable family life is an important indicator of success in later life. Putting families front and centre of the early childhood debate somewhat diminishes the “benevolent Big Brother” role that Labor clearly relishes.
But the fact is, all research indicates that a stable, happy, traditional family is the best structure within which to raise well-adjusted, well educated kids.
Please be assured that I am not suggesting that every happy marriage will produce high-achiever kids, or that single parent families are not capable of producing happy, well-adjusted kids. Not for a minute.
In fact, there are a lot of extraordinary single parents (mainly women) doing a remarkable job, and I have enormous respect for them. Heckman’s research also suggests that, while having two motivated parents may be optimal, having at least one motivated, engaged and involved parent greatly increases the chance of educational success for disadvantaged kids.
The benefits of a strong family structure are universal – and are even more pronounced in marginalised and minority communities. A stable home life is one of the best things that can happen to a child. Heckman’s research clearly supports this.
Poverty is a major cause of family dysfunction – and addressing poverty (let’s start with a strong economy and plenty of job opportunities) will improve outcomes for disadvantaged families.
However, it seems to me that over the past few decades, there has been an unwillingness to talk about the value of traditional families to our society. It’s not considered “enlightened” to do so because the implication is that it is an implied criticism of single parents, or single people, or “non-traditional” family structures.
I don’t buy that.
To value something doesn’t mean an automatic de-valuing of everything else. For example, we can value the achievement of winning a sporting event, while still valuing the fighting spirit of the person who took part but came in last.
To value marriage and families is not a condemnation of other relationships – it is simply a recognition that the traditional family structure delivers many benefits for our society and that many benefits flow for individuals, and especially children, from a successful marriage.
And perhaps the silent majority in Australia already instinctively know that – with evidence that marriage is making a comeback. Recent statistics by the ABS found that last year the number of couples tying the knot in Australia reached a 20-year high. Over the same period, we saw the fewest divorces since 1992.
There is a lot of debate about the nature of social change – with the inference that it can only occur if there is widening gulf between “traditional” values and what is taking place today. But in this case a return to marriage and traditional family values may just be change we can truly believe in.
So let’s not be apologetic, as a society, about supporting the institution of marriage. Let’s not be reticent about recognising the value of parenting, or in acknowledging the social contribution of parents who chose to either take time out of the paid workforce, or work part-time in order to care for their children.
It doesn’t mean an implied criticism of those who do not make the same choice.
And in these tough economic times, let’s also look seriously at how we can address disadvantage through targeted early education programs, rather than paying lip service to them and selectively quoting the research.
As Heckman shows , Labor’s communist-style “one size fits all’ approach won’t work - it only results in resources being spread so thin that no one truly benefits.
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