07/19/2011 01:08 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2011

Persuading Obama to Invest in Crib to College

David Kirp's Kids First is a brilliant explanation of why America needs a "crib to college" educational policy. It also is an outstanding indictment of the Obama Administration for placing billionaires first.

Kirp may not appreciate the second half of my characterization of his proposals to transform children's futures. Choosing his words diplomatically, Kirp allows that an evidence-based "pragmatopia" might be reconciled with the river boat gambles promoted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Kirp seems to know, however, that it is it is impossible for us to build on his five great ideas for children until after we have defeated reforms such as Michelle Rhee's "Students First."

Kids First uses social science to explain why America must:

1. Give new parents strong support.
2. Provide high-quality early education.
3. Link schools and communities to improve what both offer children.
4. Provide mentors to youngsters who need a stable caring adult.
5. Give kids a nest egg that helps pay for college or kick-start a career.

The first reason why this science-based agenda is incompatible with the utopian theory of data-driven "reform" is that a kids-first agenda requires us to declare truthfully what can't be done alone in the classroom. Kirp writes:

It's a sorry fact of life that seasoned kindergarten teachers in downtrodden neighborhoods can predict with reasonable accuracy which of her kids are likeliest to get pregnant or in trouble with the law by the time they're teenagers. These are five-year-olds who can't and won't follow the teacher's directions, who fight with classmates ... But there's not much that a kindergarten teacher can do to remedy that.

Kirp then explains how teams of caring adults have shown the way to change the script for "throwaway kids."

The only parts of the book where Kirp does not make a tightly-argued case is when he politely speculates that schools where educators and other providers work together might coexist with the Duncan administration's obsession with bubble-in testing. For instance, Kirp describes an excellent community school where teachers and nonteaching staff are so well integrated that it is impossible to tell who's who. In such a school, however, it would be impossible to use value-added models to fire individual teachers, which is the bottom line for the accountability hawks. After all, it allows 'reformers" to repeatedly use their tough-guy soundbites.

Then Kirp complains, "education reform in the 'No Child Left Behind' era has been fixated on quantitative benchmarks like "value-added." And clearly Kirp understands the work load that that fixation has dumped on administrators. One reason for the failure to invest in community schools is, "overtaxed administrators overwhelmed by a torrent of failing grades and dropouts can't deal with the added demands of the community school, since to them the potential synergies look more like burdens."

Even if there was unlimited time in the days of urban administrators so that they could act upon Kirp's evidence-based proposals, as they also obeyed the data-driven demands that have been made worse by Arne Duncan's policies, we still would not have the money to implement the two contradictory approaches. Kirp estimates that placing kids first "would require $46 to $67 billion dollars per year." On the other hand, we are already spending $34 billion on Head Start and other early education programs, and that money could be incorporated into a coordinated cradle to college program. Kirp estimates that we would need another $21 billion to ensure the quality of implementation that our kids deserve, and the challenge of raising that money has increased since Kids First went to press.

But, two other sources of money would be available if Kirp persuades the Duncan administration to shift gears. The cost of Duncan's $4 billion Race to the Top is only the tip of the iceberg if we seek to continue to invest billions in computer systems and standardized testing to fire teachers. And the $13 billion annual Title I budget will continue to be spent ineffectively as long as it is devoted to remediating low test scores.

Even if Kirp would not say so aloud, I suspect he agrees that we need a campaign led by Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, and the leaders of the Save Our Schools campaign to defeat our craze of standardized testing first. Then, in a second Obama Administration we need a scholar with Kirp's diplomatic skills to persuade President Obama and Secretary Duncan to reverse their course, without necessarily admitting that they have done so. After reelection, Duncan and Obama might be less enamored of tough-sounding slogans about being data-driven, and open to Kirp's data-informed, evidence-based "smart politics of the heart."