Tag: James Heckman

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: 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.