Examining Obama's Education Numbers

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In his education speech earlier this week, President Barack Obama described the U.S. education system in some pretty dire terms. He used some dramatic numbers to back up his claims.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Earlier this week, President Obama gave a speech that painted a grim picture of America's public schools.

President BARACK OBAMA: Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we've let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us.

NORRIS: Mr. Obama also used some dramatic statistics to back up his call to shake up the education system.

NPR's Larry Abramson has a look behind some of those numbers.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The president told the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday that the overhaul of American schools must begin at the beginning, with a massive investment in early childhood education.

Pres. OBAMA: For every dollar we invest in these programs, we get nearly $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health care costs and less crime.

ABRAMSON: The stimulus package sets aside $5 billion to fund early childhood education. So, will Americans get $50 billion back? Maybe. Research shows investing in at-risk kids can pay off big. Rob Grunewald, an economist with the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis, says kids who start out in these programs need fewer services later on.

Mr. ROB GRUNEWALD (Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis): Including reductions in special education, reductions in grade retention. Later on in a child's life, there is reductions in juvenile and adult crime.

ABRAMSON: But getting to the president's 10-to-1 payoff isn't easy. Rob Grunewald says he anticipates more like a $4 to $6 return for every dollar invested. He says you have to be patient.

Mr. GRUNEWALD: You get the strongest benefit, shall we say, about 15 or 20 years after the initial investment.

ABRAMSON: The payoff grows when the participants reach adulthood. Thanks to better education, they earn more money and spend less time in prison. Beyond the long wait, the research programs that looked at this issue were all very well-designed.

Education writer and blogger Gerald Bracey notes that those efforts all had things like well-trained teachers.

Mr. GERALD BRACEY (Writer, Blogger): They had parent outreach programs. They had a lot of things going that some other preschool programs don't seem to have.

ABRAMSON: Programs like Head Start, which receives much of the federal support for early childhood education. Head Start has not shown the same dependable outcomes or the big payoff that those carefully constructed research projects achieved.

President Obama also bemoaned the scourge of America's high schools.

Pres. OBAMA: Dropping out is quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country and it's not an option, not anymore, not when our high-school dropout rate has tripled in the past 30 years.

ABRAMSON: Where did that number come from? The White House sent me to a report whose author says he was talking about a different problem, not about the drop-out rate. For reliable numbers, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute says he goes to the Education Department. He says the department's data shows the graduation rate was about 79 percent, 30 years ago. Today, it's about 74 percent.

Mr. JAY GREENE (Manhattan Institute): So it's been roughly flat for the last three decades, where about a quarter of students drop out and about three-quarters of students graduate.

ABRAMSON: Many of the president's numbers do hold up pretty well under scrutiny. They underscore his larger point that spending on education is going up, but graduation rates remain low, especially for black and Hispanic students. But the lack of solid data on education gives new ammunition to skeptics, who say the president's call to spend more on education won't improve the numbers.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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