One thing that virtually every bit of serious research on education has revealed is that parents play the biggest role in educational outcomes. My own work in this area found that more than 90 percent of the differences in regional educational attainment can be attributed solely to the educational history of parents. Families play a far bigger role in educational success than any differences that occur across schools. So, what then does this mean for public policy?
In my last column, I revealed that more than a third of our current high school kids won't be economically self-sufficient throughout their lives (and by this I don't mean childhood or old age; I mean throughout life). The rest of us support them in a big alphabet soup of programs and myriad private-sector initiatives. Low educational attainment causes economic dependency. How is it that we spend more than $100,000 on each kid to get a high school degree, and it pays off for only a little more than half the kids?
Government cannot fix families. It can hold schools accountable for high teaching standards, end social promotion and force an effective curriculum. However, it isn't clear that this will help the kids with families who don't care, and the cost to the rest of us might be too high.
About half our kids go to college. Despite all the rhetoric about skyrocketing college costs, students are able to attain a college degree at some institutions for an annual cost not much greater than the combined price of cell phone service and cable TV.
Further, when viewed as the investment it is, college education pays at almost any price. There are plenty of policy proposals bandied about for higher education, but fixing what already is best in the world is a policy priority only for those trying to buy upper-middle-class votes.
There is precious little that state and federal policy can do to end high school dropouts. We cannot fix the drug and pregnancy epidemics with legislation. The remedies for these problems happen in homes, sports fields and churches, not the General Assembly.
The kids we can affect most easily are those below the college-bound but above the dropouts. The 20 percent to 30 percent who finish high school but do not pursue additional education or training offer the biggest bang for the buck in education spending.
Focusing investment on low-productivity students with potential for growth makes sense. Too many kids breeze through their last high school years without being challenged. Better-focused high school curriculum on math, science and communication is critical. Prepared students then can be encouraged to take advantage of a robust system of technical and community colleges in Indiana. These are the gateways to a quality 21st-century work force in Indiana.
Hicks is director of the Bureau of Business Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.