Archives: 07/2008

Pre-K Pushers Peddling Patent Prevarications

We left off in our last episode with a teaser on why the blessed Perry Preschool Project, Carolina Abecedarian Project, and Chicago Child-Parent Centers Program don’t prove what many people like to pretend they prove; the long-term effectiveness, let alone cost-effectiveness, of current large-scale preschool programs.

Let’s begin with the fact that these programs were all small-scale, intensive, and targeted at the most disadvantaged children.

Now let’s look at some highlights of the other problems with using these as evidence in support of government preschool programs:

The Perry Preschool Project was an early-education intervention “experiment” initiated by researchers at the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in 1962 and concluded in 1965. Project researchers analyzed the effect of home visits and preschool on outcomes for an unusual sample of 58 low-income children with IQs between 70 and 85 compared to a “control” group of 65 other children who did not attend the preschool program or receive home visits.

Researchers concluded that the positive effects of the program on outcomes such as future earnings and crime rates far outweighed the costs, giving taxpayers a return of $7.16 for every dollar invested. However, there are a number of problems with the Perry Preschool Program and the associated analyses that render them unreliable and unsuitable for estimating the effects of the large-scale programs currently under consideration in state legislatures:

One analysis noted that “the Perry Project poses a number of methodological difficulties” that call into question any conclusions about the effects of the program, positive or negative. Assignment to the preschool treatment and “control” groups was not completely random — an absolute requirement for valid experiments. And the children in the preschool program had to have parents home during the day — a requirement “resulting in a significant difference between control and intervention groups on the variable of maternal employment” that also calls into question any results.

Other criticisms included:

  • Twisting the Data: Program researchers expanded the standard definition of “statistical significance” in order to find positive effects. Most effects disappeared when the scientific standard was used.
  • More than Preschool: The program included home visitations in addition to preschool, which made it difficult if not impossible to determine whether preschool alone had significant positive effects.

The Abecedarian Project was an intensive early-intervention program begun in 1972 that placed participating infants, who were on average at 4.4 months old, “in an eight-hour-a-day, five-day-per-week, year-round educational day care center” where they “received free medical care, dietary supplements, and social service support for their families.” Half of the children in this intensive infant intervention program received three more years of educational assistance, as did half of the children in the control group that did not participate in the intervention program as infants and toddlers.

Project researchers found that the infants who received the intensive early intervention scored higher than the control children on cognitive and academic tests at age 12 and 21. There are, however, a number of problems with the Abecedarian Project and the associated analyses that render them unreliable and unsuitable for estimating the effects of the large-scale programs currently under consideration in state legislatures:

  • Much More than Preschool: The most obvious and serious problem with this “preschool” program is that the intervention was nothing like the preschool programs currently being considered or in effect. The Abecedarian Project was an intensive, long-term intervention beginning in infancy, and it can therefore shed little if any light on the effects of preschool on 3 or 4 year-olds.
  • Methodological Problems: Studies reporting effects from the Abecedarian Project generally focus on the differences between the treatment and control groups at later ages. Herman H. Spitz, a well-respected academic psychologist specializing in measuring intelligence among those with developmental disability, notes that the advantage found later emerged when the children were just 6 months old. Spitzer rightly concludes, “We need to understand why an additional 4.5 years of intensive intervention had so little effect that, at six years of age (and older), the difference between the intervention and control groups was not appreciably different than it had been at six months of age.”

The Chicago Child Parent Center Program was an early-education and family intervention begun in 1985 involving 989 low-income children in Chicago. Researchers concluded that, compared to the 550 children who did not receive the intervention, children in the program had a “higher rate of high school completion; more years of completed education; and lower rates of juvenile arrest, violent arrests, and school dropout.” This study has been used in recent years by a RAND analysis that claims a universal preschool program would return $2.62 for every dollar invested.

Again, however, there are a number of problems with the Chicago Child Parent Center Program and the associated analyses that render them unreliable and unsuitable for estimating the effects of the large-scale programs currently under consideration in state legislatures:

  • More than Preschool—Parenting: As the name of the program implies, the Chicago Child Parent Center Program involved extensive interventions with parents that involved “a multifaceted parent program that includes participating in activities in the parent resource room with other parents (e.g., educational workshops, reading groups, and craft projects), volunteering in the classroom, attending school events and field trips, and completing high school; outreach activities including resource mobilization, home visitation, and enrollment of children.”
  • More than Preschool—Tutoring: The intervention continued through 3rd grade for some students, and involved tutoring, speech therapy, and medical services that are not a part of current preschool proposals and significantly raise the costs and difficulties of expanding to a state-wide program.
  • Wild Extrapolations: The RAND study does not consider these important concerns regarding the Chicago Child Parent Center Program. Instead they uncritically apply the findings from this intensive family intervention program to a state-wide, universal preschool-only program. The researchers also arbitrarily assign middle and upper-income children benefits from preschool that no study of the Chicago Child Parent Center Program suggests they receive.

The fourth and final post is coming soon, with a response to some other objections …

Federal Prosecutors

Today, Cato is publishing an article about some disturbing trends that have emerged in federal criminal law. Washington, D.C. attorney Richard Janis explains that business executives saw what happened to Arthur Andersen when that firm tried to defend itself by going to trial. To avoid the potential catastrophe of a full-blown trial and a criminal conviction, firms will now do almost anything to placate federal prosecutors and avoid an indictment, including waiving the attorney-client privilege and firing employees at the direction of the government — even if the firm concludes that such employees were just following directions and are otherwise innocent of any wrongdoing.

Janis observes that federal prosecutors have so much leverage over business firms these days that the very nature of our adversary system of justice is in jeopardy. Companies must too often cough up millions of dollars for “settlements” that are wildly out of proportion to any perceived wrongdoing.

Janis’s paper is short but potent. To check it out, go here.

Tony Snow’s Sunny Conservatism

Whether you agreed with him or not, former presidential press secretary Tony Snow was a class act. During his time as President Bush’s chief spokesman, from April 2006 to September 2007, Snow sparred with gusto with the White House press corps but always remained cheerful and collegial. News stories about his death over the weekend report that he was unfailingly upbeat even in the final months of his battle with cancer.

I only met Tony Snow once, and that was in June 2007 at a White House briefing on immigration reform. Also speaking at the briefing were two cabinet secretaries, but we all knew who was the star attraction that day. Snow did not bring a particular expertise to the briefing, but he did express a passion for the president’s commitment to expanding opportunities for legal immigration.

In conversation after the meeting, Snow told a small group of us that it was the president’s views on immigration more than anything else that convinced him that he wanted to be part of the administration.

None of this is a big revelation if you read Tony Snow’s pre-White House writings on the subject, but it is worth remembering that this conservatives’ conservative, sometime Bush critic, and former editorial page editor of the Washington Times embraced a pro-immigration view that was at odds with much of the rest of the movement and most Republican members of Congress. One more reason to mourn his passing.

McDonald’s CEO on Globalization and Eating Your Vegetables

In an age when most corporate CEOs shun controversy, it was refreshing to read a recent interview with McDonald’s Corp. CEO Jim Skinner.

In the August 2008 issue of the Wall Street Journal magazine Smart Money [sorry, the interview has yet to be posted online], Skinner was asked what responsibility his fast-food company has for combating the national “obesity epidemic.” Skinner replied: “We are not going to solve society’s problems. People have to do that on their own …[I]f you can’t get your kids to eat vegetables, why is it my job?”

Exactly. Why should parental responsibility be treated as such a radical idea?

Skinner does note that the restaurant chain has expanded its menu to meet demand for healthier foods beyond burgers and fries. For example, McDonald’s now buys 39 million pounds of apples a year, more than any other buyer in the country.

In the same interview, Skinner credited globalization as one of the reasons the company’s stock has roughly doubled in the past three years while the economy and the rest of the stock market have struggled.

You look at the proliferation of restaurants outside the U.S. since the last big recession, in 1990 to 1991. It’s an enormous offset. Half our sales come from abroad. And we are as well positioned today as at any other time in our opportunity to serve customers and not nick their pocketbook.

Which is just the point I made a few months ago in a Cato Free Trade Bulletin on how globalization and free trade have helped U.S. companies and the economy to better weather domestic downturns.

Turning Socialism Upside Down

Raúl Castro addressed the Cuban National Assembly this weekend for the first time since officially becoming head of state. There, he gave us this rhetorical jewel:

Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income. Equality is not egalitarianism.

This is certainly not the brand of socialism I was taught by my college professors in Costa Rica. Otherwise, I might’ve ended up being a “socialist.”

However, I’m sure Raúl’s statement raised some eyebrows among the Communist Party officials gathered in the Assembly. So, in order to diffuse any misunderstanding, Raúl quickly added that he has “learned everything” from his brother Fidel.

Then, he received a standing ovation.

Barack Obama Walks the Walk

After telling a gathering of the American Federation of Teachers that he opposes school voucher programs over the weekend, Senator Obama added that: “We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them.”

Senator Obama sends his own two daughters to the private “Lab School” founded by John Dewey in 1896, which charged $20,000 in tuition at the middle school level last year. Though he says “we” should not be “throwing up our hands and walking away” from public schools, he has done precisely that.

That is his right, and, as a wealthy man, it is his prerogative under the current system of American education, which allows only the wealthy to easily choose between private and government schools. But instead of offering to extend that same choice to all families, Senator Obama wants the poor to wait for the public school system to be “fixed.”

I could editorialize about this, but I really don’t see the need. Readers of this blog are perfectly capable of drawing the obvious conclusions.

Dionne’s April Fool’s Column

Anybody can play an April Fool’s Joke in April, but E.J. Dionne deserves credit for pulling a fast one on gullible readers in July. And I’m brave enough to admit that I was briefly fooled by his column asserting that even conservatives now recognize that free markets don’t work. It was only after thinking about his column that I realized he surely must be engaging in some leg pulling if the first person he quotes is one of the most collectivist-minded members of Congress, Barney Frank. Dionne tries to trick readers by then citing the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, who (gee, what a surprise) is in favor of more regulatory power for the Federal Reserve, but he neatly avoids any explanation for why this is evidence that conservatives are abandoning markets (perhaps he is assuming that Bernanke is a conservative because he was appointed by Bush, but surely Dionne is not so naive):

Since the Reagan years, free-market cliches have passed for sophisticated economic analysis. But in the current crisis, these ideas are falling, one by one, as even conservatives recognize that capitalism is ailing. …The old script is in rewrite. “We are in a worldwide crisis now because of excessive deregulation,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said in an interview. …While Frank is a liberal, the same cannot be said of Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve. …Bernanke sounded like a born-again New Dealer in calling for “a more robust framework for the prudential supervision of investment banks and other large securities dealers.”

Wait a minute. Perhaps Dionne is writing a serious column. He quotes Irwin Stelzer of the Hudson Institute, who reasonably can be considered a conservative:

What’s striking is that conservatives who revere capitalism are offering their own criticisms of the way the system is working. Irwin Stelzer, director of the Center for Economic Policy Studies at the Hudson Institute, says the subprime crisis arose in part because lenders quickly sold their mortgages to others and bore no risk if the loans went bad. “You have to have the person who’s writing the risk bearing the risk,” he says. “That means a whole host of regulations. There’s no way around that.”

Dionne seems impressed that Stelzer says that markets don’t work perfectly. But that is a reflection of Dionne’s unfamiliarity with economics. After all, failure, like success, is a part of the market process. Dionne does note, however, that Stelzer is endorsing more regulation, so there is a tiny shred of evidence for his hypothesis that conservatives want more government intervention. But if this is the evidentiary bar that has to be cleared for such assertions, I’m going to write a column saying that all socialists now support a flat tax. And I won’t even have to find one left-leaning writer to “prove” my point. I can just point to the various socialist-led governments in Eastern Europe that have adopted single-rate tax systems.

Before signing off, I feel compelled to point out that Stelzer has a fair diagnosis but a misguided prescription. Yes, hindsight shows that lenders were cavalier about loans since they knew other investors would be the ones bearing the risk. But after absorbing billions of dollars in losses, investors obviously have a huge incentive to avoid the same mistake. Indeed, that is why failure plays a crucial role in a market economy; people learn from mistakes. Additional government regulation, by contrast, is at best a case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. In the vast majority of cases, however, regulations throw sand in the gears and/or distort incentives for the efficient allocation of resources.