Early Childhood Summit Don’t Lie?

When I first heard about the White House Summit on Early Education being held today, I worried. “I sure hope this isn’t going to be a PR stunt to cheerlead for government pre-kindergarten programs,” I thought. Then I got the announcement: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be having a Twitter chat with pop sensation Shakira in conjunction with the summit! “Oh, I was just being silly,” I said to myself, relieved that this would be a sober, objective discussion about what we do – and do not – know about the effectiveness of pre-K programs.

Okay, that’s not actually what happened. In fairness to Shakira, she does appear to have a very serious interest in children’s well-being. Unfortunately, the White House does not appear to want to have an objective discussion of early childhood education.

Just look at this, from the official White House blog:

For every dollar we invest in early childhood education, we see a rate of return of $7 or more through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these kids as adults.

Early education is one of the best investments our country can make. Participation in high-quality early learning programs—like Head Start, public and private pre-K, and childcare—provide children from all backgrounds with a strong start and a solid foundation for success in school.

Let me count the ways that this is deceptive, or just plain wrong, as largely documented in David Armor’s recent Policy Analysis The Evidence on Universal Preschool:

  • The 7-to-1 ROI figure – for which the White House cites no source – almost certainly comes from work done by James Heckman looking at the rate of return for the Perry Preschool program. It may well be accurate, but Perry was a microscopic, hyperintensive program from the 1960s that cannot be generalized to any modern, large-scale program.
  • If you look at the longitudinal, “gold-standard” research results for Head Start, you see that the modest advantages accrued early on essentially disappear by first grade…as if Head Start never happened. And federal studies released by the Obama administration are what report this.
  • It stretches credulity to call Head Start “high quality,” not just based on its results, but on its long history of waste and paralysis. Throughout the 2000s the federal Government Accountability Office and general media reported on huge waste and failure in the program.
  • Most evaluations of state-level pre-K programs do not randomly assign children to pre-K and compare outcomes with those not chosen, the “gold standard” mentioned above. Instead they often use “regression discontinuity design” which suffers from several shortcomings, arguably the biggest of which is that you can’t do longitudinal comparisons. In other words, you can’t detect the “fade out” that seems to plague early childhood education programs and render them essentially worthless. One large-scale state program that was evaluated using random-assignment – Tennessee’s – appears to be ineffective.
  • The White House says early childhood programs can help “children from all backgrounds.” Not only is that not true if benefits fade to nothing, but a federal, random-assignment evaluation of the Early Head Start program found that it had negative effects on the most at-risk children.

I suspect the vast majority of people behind expanding preschool are well intentioned, and I encourage them to leverage as much private and philanthropic funding as they can to explore different approaches to pre-K and see what might work. But a splashy event intended to proclaim something is true for which we just don’t have good evidence doesn’t help anyone.

Let’s not mislead taxpayers…or kids.