Tag: head start

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.

Education Guns Fire Blanks in War on Poverty

A lot of federal weapons were created to fight President Lyndon Johnson’s ”War on Poverty,” and some of the biggest were in education. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and Head Start are all parts of Johnson’s overall effort to end poverty and create a “Great Society.” They also share two other things in common: pretty damning evidence that they are failures, and Cato videos laying out the bad news.

The first video – which calls for the end of the U.S. Department of Education, but in so doing highlights ESEA and HEA programs – presents the big evidence of K-12 and higher ed failure: massive spending, stagnant test scores, and turbo-charged college tuition inflation. Of course, a lot of variables affect these things, but there is simply no compelling evidence of federal success. 

The second video is of Cato’s recent forum, “Preschool Education: What the Research Says.” While there is a great deal of debate about the effectiveness of preschool generally, there seems to be consensus that Head Start has few, if any, meaningful, lasting, positive effects. Yet not only do we stick with it, President Obama is pushing to expand federal preschool intervention, to the tune of $75 billion over ten years.

What keeps these misfiring, War on Poverty blunderbusses in service? Not their effectiveness, because, well, there is precious little evidence of any. Most likely, it is that it’s very compelling to “help” the young and poor with big programs, while it is cost prohibitive for the average American, with a full-time job and other interests, to research whether these programs actually help. Finally, for most politicians – where the public-sentiment rubber meets the public-policy road – the costs of appearing not to care are much too great to act on the powerful evidence that voters rarely see.

Hopefully, voters will see these videos.

Who Cares If Pre-K Would Work?

The following is cross-posted from the National Journal’s Education Experts blog:

This week’s introduction says that, when it comes to President Obama’s preschool proposal, “the only problem, as always, is that these investments cost money.” These proposals certainly would cost money – dollars Washington doesn’t have – but even discussing cost is seriously jumping the gun. The fact is that right now, regardless of cost, there is almost no meaningful evidence to support massive expansion of federal pre-school efforts. Indeed, the evidence calls much more loudly for the opposite.

Start with the biggest federal pre-K initiative, Head Start. It costs about $8 billion per year, and what are its lasting effects? According to the latest random-assignment, federal assessments, there essentially aren’t any. The program has demonstrated no meaningful, lasting benefits, and is therefore a failure.

How about Early Head Start, which involves children ages 0 to 3? It is a much newer program than its big brother, but it, too, provides no evidence of overall, lasting benefits. As a 2010 random-assignment, federal study concludes:

The impact analyses show that for the overall sample, the positive effects of Early Head Start for children and parents did not continue when children were in fifth grade…. It appears that the modest impacts across multiple domains that were observed in earlier waves of follow-up did not persist by the time children were in fifth grade.

There were, to be fair, some lasting positive effects found for some subgroups, but there were also negative effects. And for the “highest-risk” children – the ones the program is most supposed to help – the outcomes were awful:

Early Education Scholar Takes Universal Pre-K Advocates to School

Grover “Russ” Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution has spent decades studying early childhood education. Last month he offered a review of the evidence on the federal “Head Start” program targeted at low-income children and another on universal government Pre-K programs.

Like most people who have chosen to work in this field, he is keen to find ways of improving educational outcomes for all children, and of helping disadvantaged children to catch up with their peers. Like only a very few, this goal has not lowered his standards of evidence. If there is a convincing rebuttal to Whitehurst’s essays, I haven’t seen it. And given the evidence as it exists today, I don’t expect to see such a rebuttal anytime soon.

Like Its Big Sibling, Early Head Start Not Built to Last

People used to laugh nervously about the federal government taking over their lives “from cradle to grave.” But at least since the passage of Obamacare—not to mention the two-dimensional Utopia of Julia—that has seemed a much more concrete prospect. And with President Obama’s new proposals to expand federal pre-kindergarten programs going all the way to age zero, the cradle is now fully in play.

We’ve heard a lot about pre-K for years, but focused mainly on the age 3-to-5 set. For the federal government that means Head Start, an $8 billion program that has been shown again and again to have essentially no lasting benefits. But since the mid-1990s Washington has also run something called Early Head Start aimed at infants and toddlers.

It’s probably safe to say that few people know much about Early Head Start, which is too bad because, if the debate goes anything like that for overall pre-K, there will be many deceptive claims suggesting it has nearly miraculous effects. Indeed, yesterday Washington Post “Wonkblog” contributor Dylan Matthews wrote that Early Head Start has “proven very effective in randomized controlled trials.” To back the claim he linked to “The Promising Practices Network” which, citing three studies, did indeed designate the program “proven.”

But is it? The answer is emphatically “no,” just like regular Head Start. The positive effects disappear by, at the latest, fifth grade, meaning recipients would have ultimately been as well off had they not gone through the program. As the authors write in the conclusion to the third study cited by the Promising Practices Network:

The impact analyses show that for the overall sample, the positive effects of Early Head Start for children and parents did not continue when children were in fifth grade…. It appears that the modest impacts across multiple domains that were observed in earlier waves of follow-up did not persist by the time children were in fifth grade.

That is not the only bad news for Early Head Start. While some lasting, positive effects were found for some subgroups, so were many negative effects. And for the families and children designated “highest risk”-–-those who needed help the most-–-the effects of Early Head Start were awful:

Prez to Double Down on pre-Kindergarten Flop?

According to the latest buzz, President Obama may suggest dramatically expanding federal government preschool programs in his State of the Union address next week. That, at any rate, is the recommendation of a new report from an institute closely associated with the admnistration.

There are just two problems with this plan: 1) it’s already been tried; 2) it doesn’t work.

We now have 45 years of experience with, and two top-quality randomized studies of, the national Head Start pre-school program, and the results are disappointing. Head Start was meant to close the gap in student achievement between the children of advantaged and disadvantaged families. But, at the end of high school, the gap in achievement between the children of college graduates and those of high school dropouts has remained essentially unchanged since the program was introduced. We have even more direct evidence from two large national studies of the program commissioned by the very agency that administers it: the Department of Health and Human Services. These studies find no significant benefits to Head Start at the end of the third grade–or even at the end of the first.

So why double-down on a failed program? The most plausible (and charitable) explanation is a bad case of wishful thinking. Many people make the mistake of improperly generalizing from two or three tiny pre-school programs of earlier decades which did show some lasting benefits. Sadly the federal government’s nationwide Head Start program has not replicated those benefits despite generations of unrelenting effort. And there is no reason to imagine that it will suddenly start doing so if expanded even further.

Trying to fix failed federal preschool programs by dumping more money on them is like trying to make up per-unit losses by increasing sales volume. Sadly, that’s about the level of economic acumen demonstrated by recent administrations.

‘Education’: The Relentless Political Weapon

On at least six occasions in his address to the nation last night President Obama invoked the words “education,” “student,” or “college” to scare listeners into thinking that the federal government must have increased revenues. Typical was this bit of cheap, class-warfare stoking rhetoric:

How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries? How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don’t need and didn’t ask for?

Now, I’m all for eliminating economy-distorting tax loopholes, incentives, etc. But there is simply no way on God’s green Earth that the President—or anyone else—could look at what the federal government has done in the name of education and conclude that it has been anything but a bankrupting, multi-trillion-dollar failure:

  • Spending on Head Start is ultimately just money down a rathole according to the federal government’s own assessment
  • In K-12 education, Washington has dropped ever-bigger loads of cash onto schools out of ever-bigger jumbo jets, but has gotten zero improvement in the end
  • In higher education, all the money that supposedly makes college more affordable is actually a major driver behind students having ”to pay more for college”—just what the President decries—because it enables colleges to raise their prices at rates far outstripping normal inflation

The only people who regularly benefit from federal education profligacy are not students, but school employees and, especially, their lobbyists. They are teachers’ unions, tenure-track college professors, school administrators of all varieties, but not students, and definitely not taxpayers. Oh, and one other group: politicians who, despite the overwhelming evidence that all their spending on education is utterly useless, just keep exploiting students to buy votes and beat down anyone who would return the federal government to a sane—and constitutional— size.

Education, for our politicians, is not a thing to be fostered. If it were, they’d get out of the business. No, it is a political weapon, and it continues to be used to deadly effect.