Early Education: Lots of Noise, Little to Hear

This weekend, the Detroit News ran a letter to the editor taking issue with a piece I wrote about the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsbility Act (SAFRA). Strangley, though the main part of SAFRA deals with higher education loans; the bill contains new spending all over the education map; and I made no specific mention of early-childhood education in my piece (though there is an early-ed component in the bill); the letter is all about pre-K education.

That the pre-K pushers even saw my op-ed as something to write about illustrates how very agressive they are. Unfortunately, the letter also demonstrates how dubious is the message that they are so loudly and energetically proclaiming. Here’s a telling bit:

Economists, business leaders and scientists all know from cold, hard data that high-quality early education provides a significant return on investment in terms of education, social and health outcomes.

Whether pre-K education is worth even a dime all depends on how you define “high quality.” As Adam Schaeffer lays out in his new early-education policy analysis — and Andrew Coulson reiterates in an exchange with economist James Heckman — the “cold, hard data” say only that a few programs seem to work, and most don’t. Pronouncements about the huge returns on pre-K investment are almost always based on very small, hyper-intensive programs that would be all but impossible to replicate on a large scale. And the programs that do function on a large scale? As Adam lays out, they provide little to no return on investment.

The early-education crowd is very good at getting out its message. Too bad the message itself is so darn suspect.