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Game Changers

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If you want to change the ongoing inequities in American society - and in our public schools - is it better to invest in universally available early childhood programs, or universally available computer tablets?

If you read yesterday's New York Times, you know that two very different public figures - the University of Chicago's James Heckman, and the News Corporation's Joel Klein - have come to two very different conclusions.

Heckman, one of the country's biggest champions of early childhood education, urges us to "rethink long-held notions of how we develop productive people and promote shared prosperity." The indicators of success we attribute to the quality (or lack thereof) of one's education, he explains, are "in truth largely a result of factors determined long before children even enter school." Consequently, making deep investments in early education would not just give our country its best chance at a generational game-changer, but also reflect what the research tells us: that skills beget skills.

"The cognitive skills prized by the American educational establishment and measured by achievement tests are only part of what is required for success in life," Heckman writes. "Character skills are equally important determinants of wages, education, health and many other significant aspects of flourishing lives. Self-control, openness, the ability to engage with others, to plan and to persist -- these are the attributes that get people in the door and on the job, and lead to productive lives. Cognitive and character skills work together as dynamic complements; they are inseparable." Ergo, Heckman concludes, early childhood programs are our best bet to ensure that all children arrive in Kindergarten with the foundational skills they need to succeed.

Works for me.

But then I turned to my Sunday Magazine, where I found a feature story profiling Amplify, a New York-based organization with a very different game-changing recipe: getting computer tablets into the hands of as many schoolchildren as possible.

As Amplify's CEO, Joel Klein, explains, the reasons to spend tax dollars on educational technology are threefold: to make learning more customized; to leverage student interest in technology; and to give teachers the tools they need to be successful. Amplify envisions a future world in which a growing stream of information, "which can be analyzed down to individual keystrokes, will yield a picture that can eventually progress in complexity from, say, a list of words a student looks up to a profile of metacognitive skills - like the ability to concentrate - and in time to a full-blown portrait of a developing mind." As Amplify employee Justin Lietes explains, "Think of school as a not very good game. You pretty much know at the beginning which kids are going to come out on top at the end, and they do. But this is among other things a way to make that game more meaningful and rewarding for more people."

Maybe he's right. After all, I can see the appeal of eventually getting more detailed information on the habits and dispositions of children; indeed, I agree that information like that could help teachers do a better job of meeting their students' needs.

Then again, efforts like Amplify's are also unavoidably great ways to make great amounts of money in an industry that already spends $17 billion a year on instructional materials and technology. Is that bad? Are for-profit ventures in public education prima facie evidence of the gathering privatizing barbarians at the gate?

I'm not ready to be that damning in my thinking - yet. And maybe it's just coincidence that these two articles appeared on the same day, but it reminds me that when it comes to doubling down on game-changing investments, ours is a society with conflicting allegiances. In theory, we unleash capitalist ingenuity in order to create a more democratic society. In reality, the goals of democracy and capitalism, left untended, flow in different directions. The invisible hand of the market has, quite visibly, fueled historic levels of income inequality and unprecedented levels of children living in poverty. And the most intractable obstacles to greater upward mobility in America have less to do with access to technology, and more to do with the accidental lottery of one's birth.

This question, then, of which game-changer deserves our greater attention is not just an intellectual parlor game: it's a litmus test of where our primary allegiance lies - with our democratic or our capitalistic selves. And on that point at least, I know who gets my vote.

Follow Sam on Twitter.

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