There’s an old story about a town that was planning to build a playground. In the town council, someone brought up the problem that the proposed site was at the edge of a cliff, so there was a danger that children might fall off. The council then got into a debate about whether to build a fence at the top of the cliff or station an ambulance at the bottom!
The point of the story, of course, is that it’s ridiculous to invest in remediation of problems that could have been prevented. Yet in education, that is what happens all the time. We spend billions on remediation and special education, not to mention damage caused by preventable delinquency and mental health problems, while investing relatively little in prevention, or research on which preventive approaches work.
There is plenty of evidence, for example, to the effect that early reading failure is catastrophic for students’ progress in school and in life. Further, there is plenty of evidence illustrating that most reading failure can be prevented using proven preschool, kindergarten, and primary-grades reading strategies using structured, phonetic one-to-one or small group tutoring, and whole-school reforms focusing on reading for all. Add to these the likely improvements in prevention that could result from ensuring that all children who need them have eyeglasses and other health services necessary to ensure that students are ready to learn every day.
There are good reasons to invest in proven educational programs at all levels and in all subjects, but when proven programs also reduce government expenditures within a few years, even the most bottom-line oriented administrator or legislator should see the need to invest in proven prevention. A fence is not only smarter and kinder than an ambulance – it’s also a lot cheaper.