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On Time Horizons and Education Outcomes

By Jeffrey R. Henig

My two daughters are full-fledged adults now, but I can remember what it was like to parent them when they were small. Sometimes our decisions were based on very near-term considerations: how to keep them from running into the street without looking, how to get through a restaurant meal without a commotion. But, I think I'm not romanticizing when I remember that most of our important decisions were oriented around our hopes for how the girls would weather challenges and opportunities five, ten, and even twenty years down the road. Any one expedition to a museum was unlikely to have a perceptible effect, but out of a series of such adventures perhaps one or more would trip a wire that would affect their appreciation of culture and the likelihood that they'd take themselves to museums when old enough to make decisions on their own. A single visit to the dentist for a regular check-up would be unlikely to uncover serious problems requiring near-term procedures, but the accumulation of those visits might reduce the risk of cavities in childhood and gum disease in their adult years. My wife and I considered these things absolutely critical to being good parents, even at the same time that we knew that no single one was likely to matter and that even in the aggregate they were unlikely to matter in ways that we would witness soon.

I raise this issue of time horizon because I believe that much of our current education policy effort is mistakenly adopting a short-term perspective that inadvertently rewards actions with an immediate impact and discounts actions - the same one that most good parents make -- that may germinate for years before blossoming in very important ways.

During the 1970s, a hot controversy centered on explanations of poverty as being rooted in individuals' and groups' orientations toward time. Political scientist Edward Banfield became a lightning rod for this controversy. In his book, The Unheavenly City, Banfield blamed poverty and, to a great extent, urban decline on lower class culture: a "'distinct patterning' of attitudes, values, and models of behavior" associated with social class and best explained by a "psychological orientation toward the future." Banfield's claim that extreme present-orientation created a self-perpetuating condition of poverty, crime, and social decay led critics to charge him with a paternalistic, smug, and even racist view that blamed the victim for social forces beyond his or her control. His defenders argued that Banfield was being caricatured and the nuances of his argument deliberately misunderstood. But no one questioned that a short time horizon was unsophisticated and dysfunctional in a world in which a high return often requires investing in ways that may take years to realize their potential.

It's ironic that today's reform crusaders, so sophisticated in so many ways, suffer from the same present-orientation that Banfield ascribed to the lower class. But accountability regimes that attach nearly all of their consequences to outcomes measured within a single school year effectively adopt that same stunted time horizon. Some policy approaches focused on non-school factors will return immediate benefits, just like occasionally one of our family visits to a museum would spark some visible excitement in one of our girls. But there is no good reason to expect the best or highest return on such investments to develop immediately and grow along a straight line. And the same goes in education reform where school-focused strategies may be more likely to pass the test of generating short-term pay-offs, but where less direct strategies addressing public health, income inequality, concentration of poverty, or a broad community engagement are likely to take longer to take root and take effect.

When it comes to assessing educational strategies, reformers are right to insist on attention to the bottom line of outcomes and their ratio to costs, and proponents of outside-in reform approaches need to build an evidence for their claims and not just ask allegiance based on faith. But combining tight focus on the bottom line with present-orientation is a recipe for defeat.


Jeffrey R. Henig is a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. His recent book, Spin Cycle: How Research Is Used in Policy Debates, The Case of Charter Schools (Russell Sage Foundation Publications, 2008), won the American Educational Research Association's Outstanding Book Award in 2010.

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