A perspective on the GED and why the Excel Center is a more effective option for many

The following excerpt from How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2012) is one illustration of why I believe Tough’s book should be read by anyone who is seriously interested in finding long term solutions to a lot of persistent social problems.

“(James) Heckman wanted to examine more closely the idea that young people with GEDs were just as well prepared for further academic pursuits as high-school graduates. He analyzed a few large national databases, and he found that in many important ways, the premise was entirely valid. According to their scores on achievement tests, which correlate closely with IQ, GED recipients were every bit as smart as high-school graduates. But when Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he discovered that GED recipients weren’t anything like high-school graduates. At age twenty-two, Heckman found, just 3 percent of GED recipients were enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of post-secondary degree, compared to 46 percent of high-school graduates. In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes – annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs – GED recipients looked exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts.

From a policy point of view, this was a useful finding, if a depressing one: In the long run, it seemed, as a way to improve your life, the GED was essentially worthless. If anything, it might be having a negative overall effect by inducing young people to drop out of high school. But for Heckman, the results also posed a confounding intellectual puzzle. Like most economists, Heckman had believed that cognitive ability was the single most reliable determinant of how a person’s life would turn out. Now he had discovered a group – GED holders – whose test scores didn’t seem to have any positive effect on their lives.

What was missing from the equation, Heckman concluded, were the psychological traits that had allowed the high-school graduates to make it through school. Those traits – an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification; the tendency to follow through on a plan – also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace, and in life generally.”

Obtaining a GED is a successful completion of an event – passing a test. On the other hand, a diploma takes consistent effort over time to achieve. Students must earn credits, stick to their goals, set targets and deadlines, and work to reach the goals. It takes more persistence, grit, and motivation to achieve.

Part of the job of an Excel Center “coach” is to help students develop the traits that will improve their life prospects. Even after graduation, the ongoing relationship we offer with a Goodwill Guide is intended to reinforce those traits.

Excel Center students dropped out of high school for a wide variety of reasons. Our schools offer a new path to those persons and other older youth and adults who did not think they would ever have another chance. Not all will succeed, but many will.

The scarce resource (Hint: It’s not money.)

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

In his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), Paul Tough presents research on the effects of poverty on a child’s development. He argues that the chaotic environments that many low-income kids grow up in and the often stressful relationships they have with the adults around them make a huge difference in how children’s brains develop and lead to later problems in school, health, and behavior.

Similarly, in an essay titled “Promoting Social Mobility” (Boston Review, Sept./Oct. 2012), James J. Heckman notes that “early adverse experiences correlate with poor adult health, high medical care costs, increased depression and suicide rates, alcoholism, drug use, poor job performance and social function, disability, and impaired performance of subsequent generations.”

Other relevant quotes from Heckman’s essay include:

“An emerging literature confirms the common sense idea that success in life depends on much more than smarts. Non-cognitive abilities – including strength of motivation, an ability to act on long range plans, and the socio-emotional regulation needed to work with others – also have a large impact on earnings, employment, labor force experience, college attendance, teen pregnancy, … and participation in crime.”

“…both cognitive and socio-emotional skills develop in early childhood, and their development depends on the family environment. But family environments in the United States have deteriorated over the past 40 years. A growing fraction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families, where disadvantage is most basically a matter of the quality of family life and only secondarily measured by the number of parents, their income, and their education levels. And that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations.”

“…experimental evidence shows that intervening early can produce positive and lasting effects on children in disadvantaged families. This evidence is consistent with a large body of non-experimental evidence showing that the absence of supportive family environments harms childhood and adult outcomes. Early interventions can improve cognitive as well as socio-emotional skills. They promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity, and reduce teenage pregnancy…the benefits of later interventions are greatly enhanced by earlier interventions: skill begets skill…”

What are some of the implications for public policy? Heckman notes that programs that target the early years seem to have the greatest promise. These include Nurse-Family Partnership (which Goodwill is now implementing in Indianapolis). “Programs with home visits affect the lives of the parents and create a permanent change in the home environment that supports the child after center-based interventions end. Programs that build character and motivation, and do not focus exclusively on cognition, appear to be the most effective.”

What about programs for older children and youth? According to Heckman, “A growing body of evidence does suggest that cognitive skills are established early in life and that boosting raw IQ and problem-solving ability in the teenage years is much harder than doing so when children are young. But social and personality skills are another story. They are malleable into the early twenties, although early formation of these skills is still the best policy because they boost learning. Adolescent strategies should boost motivation, personality, and social skills through mentoring and workplace-based education.”

Heckman concludes the essay by noting that “Giving money to poor families does not, by itself, promote social mobility across generations….The scarce resource is love and parenting – not money.”

In a column titled, “Of Love and Money,” published in the New York Times May 25, 2006, David Brooks drew a similar conclusion: “Kids learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults.”

Multidimensional impact

At a recent Excel Center graduation, 55 adults walked across the stage in caps and gowns to receive their high school diplomas. After the ceremony, the father of one of the graduates approached me to express his gratitude for the Excel Center. Not long after she dropped out of school, his daughter realized she had made a mistake, but was not able to find a way to return to school that would fit her life situation. Then she found out about the Excel Center. She not only earned a diploma; she also began post-secondary studies, which she is continuing at IUPUI.

Her father kept repeating to me how much he appreciated Goodwill for starting a school like the Excel Center. But then his wife entered the conversation and said that there was another reason why her family appreciated Goodwill. Over a year earlier, both she and her husband lost their jobs. They had gone through their savings and were on the verge of losing their house. Fortunately, they were also aware of Goodwill’s Outlet Stores, which sell merchandise that did not sell in Goodwill’s other stores. Most of the merchandise is sold by the pound, and the stores have been incredibly popular.

Many of the customers who frequent the Outlet Stores buy goods they then try to resell. The family of the Excel Center graduate began doing this – buying merchandise in large quantities and reselling much of it online. They were able to make enough money to keep their family fed and to make their house payments. As the mother said to me, “Goodwill helped us keep our house.”

As I thought about my conversation with the parents of that graduate, it struck me that both the Outlet Stores and the Excel Centers are relatively recent innovations at Goodwill. And while they operate in separate divisions of Goodwill, both have had a significant direct positive impact on that graduate and her family.

Another recent development at Goodwill is also beginning to have multidimensional impact. Early in 2012 we began operating Nurse-Family Partnership, a highly effective nurse-led home visitation program for first-time mothers in low income households. Registered nurses make weekly or biweekly visits with the mom and baby until the child is two years old. Their main areas of focus are on health related matters and the development of good parenting skills. Some of the moms are students in an Excel Center, and some are employed by Goodwill. Again, a multidimensional impact.

A few years ago we made a conscious decision to take a more holistic, whole family approach in our work. We also recognized the importance of long term relationships for lasting impact. Accordingly, we have made a commitment to maintain an active, supportive relationship with every graduate of our schools until he or she obtains a post-secondary credential, becomes employed, and remains in the workforce for at least one year. We have also developed a data warehouse that will help us track the progress of every graduate indefinitely. This, in turn, will help maximize positive outcomes for our graduates and help us continue to improve the effectiveness of the services we offer.

Every innovation – in fact, every major step we have taken – especially over the last twenty years – has built on what we had learned from earlier experiences. Constant learning, wonderfully talented staff, and a strong financial position made possible largely by donors of goods, retail customers, and donors of money to the Goodwill Foundation have produced a recipe that is yielding increasingly positive, often multidimensional, long term benefits for many individuals and their families and for the communities in which we operate.

 

The Excel Centers

The Excel Center, Decatur Rd. location

In 2010, we designed and launched a high school for older youth and adults who had dropped out of school. We did this in response to a request by the Mayor of Indianapolis to see if we could find a way to help adults who lacked a high school diploma to earn one. There are a lot more people in that situation than I had imagined – over 15% of the adult population of the United States, including over 100,000 in Indianapolis – and because existing adult education programs left a lot to be desired, those individuals have had very limited options.

We designed the school to fit the life circumstances of the prospective students. The Excel Center is open year-round, and schedules can be arranged to accommodate students’ work or family obligations. Supports are available to help keep students on track and to address factors that might hinder education attainment. There’s a free child care center for the children of our students while they are in class, and many of our students are able to take post-secondary courses for dual credit and begin working toward a post-secondary credential that will increase their employability and earning potential.

We opened the first Excel Center in September 2010. Although we did no advertising, by the following spring there were over 2,000 prospective students on the waiting list. Nothing we have ever done has resonated so quickly with so many people.

The Excel Center, Meadows location

In September 2011 we added two more sites, and in August we will open two more to bring total enrollment to approximately 1,400 students. We are also packaging the model and developing a licensing option so that qualified organizations in other communities and states can open Excel Centers and become part of an Excel Center Network that will enable thousands more adults to raise their education attainment levels.

All of the schools in the network will have access to a portal with curriculum materials and other educational resources, a data system that will permit “deep dives” to see what’s working best and enhance efforts to improve student success. A communications platform will enable lateral communication among staff across the network as they seek to improve their effectiveness. The model will not be static. Rather, everyone in the network will be in a position to help improve it.

Fifty-five percent of our students are 24 years of age or younger. We also have many parents who are in their 30s and 40s. We have even had a few students who were in their 60s. Many of the parents have told us they are doing this so their kids won’t have an excuse not to finish school. Some of our students and their school-age children even do their homework together around the kitchen table.

We know our graduates will benefit from earning their high school diploma and obtaining a post-secondary credential, as they will then qualify for better jobs than they’ve typically had. But we believe their children will benefit even more, as they have seen their parents going to school, doing homework, and in many cases having a renewed sense of purpose and excitement in life.

There are many reasons why students in our Excel Centers didn’t finish high school when they were younger. Some admit they just made a mistake. As we’ve seen, though, there are a lot of adults eager for another chance to improve their circumstances and those of their children.

On Getting More Bang for the Buck

As I have highlighted in previous posts of this blog, there’s a lot of data showing a deterioration in a number of major social indicators over the last forty years, despite massive increases in public spending and a huge proliferation of not-for-profit organizations. Overall, the dominant approaches that have been taken during the past several decades have not reduced a lot of our social problems. One could even argue that some of those approaches have actually made matters worse.

Fortunately, there are some steps being taken that might eventually result in more effective use of public and philanthropic dollars to alleviate social problems. According to the Coalition for Evidence-based Policy,” the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has launched a major new push for the development and use of rigorous evidence in budget, management and policy decisions across the federal government…”

The kind of rigorous evidence to which OMB is referring is the kind that Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) has been able to demonstrate over a long period of time. NFP is, to use language of the Coalition for Evidence-based Policy, an intervention “shown in well-conducted randomized controlled trials… to produce sizeable, sustained benefits to participants and/or society.”

NFP is a nurse-led home visitation program for first-time moms in low income households who voluntarily enroll no later than the 28th week of pregnancy. A registered nurse makes frequent home visits to help improve pregnancy outcomes, help parents learn how to provide responsible and competent care for their children, and help improve the economic self-sufficiency of the family. Regular visits by the nurse continue until the children are two years old.

Goodwill worked for three years to bring NFP to Indiana, and we have begun implementing the program in Indianapolis. At capacity, our registered nurses will be working with 600 moms at a time.

Thirty years of randomized controlled trials have produced evidence of the incredible long term benefits of NFP. For example:

    48% reduction in child abuse and neglect through child age 15
    56% fewer doctor and hospital visits due to childhood injuries through child age 2
    67% fewer behavioral and intellectual problems in children at age 6
    69% fewer convictions of nurse-visited children at age 15
    72% fewer convictions of mothers when children are at age 15
    83% increase in workforce participation by low-income, unmarried mothers by the time their child is four years old

The Rand Corporation calculated that every dollar invested in NFP results in a $5.70 return to society.

Some people don’t want to invest public dollars in programs such as these because, they emphasize, parents are responsible for giving their child a strong, healthy start. I agree that it’s the parent’s responsibility. However, when a parent is unable–for whatever reason–to exercise that responsibility well, the rest of us have a choice. We can invest up front to help prevent problems and develop human potential – or we can do as we’re now doing and continue to pay much more downstream for public assistance, remedial education, rehabilitation, incarceration, and in all the insidious ways we all pay when we have a poorly educated, under-skilled workforce.

It’s also important to remember that no child has any choice about the circumstances into which he or she is born.

If we really want more bang for our buck, we will begin shifting support from programs with marginal return to those that can demonstrate high, long-term benefits. Doing so will upset some people, but will result in a wiser, more effective use of the dollars that are available. The potential long-term benefits are enormous.