Reading Into Reading Campaigns

Emmett Rensin and David Shor criticize public efforts – like Hillary Clinton’s Too Small to Fail campaign – that suggest reading to your kids will make them smarter. They explain why their preferred method of educational reform is simply “called ‘giving money to people'”:

Here’s a story about Norway. On August 21, 1969, massive oil reserves were discovered under Norway’s sovereign waters in the North Sea. Previously poor regions became suddenly wealthy as the petroleum boom–later bolstered by a natural gas discovery–poured new income into the region. But the wealth wasn’t spread evenly—not every Norwegian in the north could get in on the action. Suddenly there were the makings of a great natural experiment (PDF). Researchers wanted to see what the impact of sudden cash infusions–a significant environmental change–had on previously poor students, as compared with their still-impoverished peers. The influx of money bested almost every other popular solution to the education gap: students in suddenly-well-off families saw an average of 3 percent increase in absolute IQ and a 6 percent increase in college attendance. The results were as good as the best American charter schools at a fraction of the cost and logistical hassle.

Another set of circumstances conspired to demonstrate the same principle in the United States. During the course of a long longitudinal study, the calculation of the Earned Income Tax Credit–an essentially unconditional cash transfer to poor parents–changed several times, allowing researchers to plot the causal achievement impact of cash transfers on a curve of multiple benefit levels (PDF). These results were even more significant: for a mere $3,000 given annually to the parents of poor children, the data suggests a 7 percent increase in expected student test scores. That’s a relatively low number, too: $8,000 annually wouldn’t double the impact, but it would get us well clear of 10 percent, and still cost less than comparable alternatives. Other studies back up the same thesis, though they don’t quite have the same fun stories.