Tag: pre-kindergarten

“High Quality” Pre-K States Show Mixed Results

In previous blog posts I’ve pointed out that federal pre-K programs have proven ineffective for half a century and that the claims of large returns-on-investment due to pre-K stem almost exclusively from just three small-scale programs—out of hundreds of such programs operating around the nation for decades. Naturally, if we confine ourselves to talking about the tiny minority of programs that appear to have worked, we’ll find, well, that they worked. Pretending that their results are representative is not scientifically-based policymaking, it’s willful self-delusion—particularly when they have never successfully been scaled-up.

Those few among the advocates of universal government preschool who comtemplate such facts usually point, in their defense, to Georgia and Oklahoma. These two states have long had universal state-funded preschool programs deemed, by their advocates, to be “high quality.” Even if we could magically wave our policy wands and ensure that these programs could be faithfully replicated by the U.S. Congress, we might not want to. Here is why, in pictures:

 

Several things are evident from these charts. First, neither state has seen a very large move in its scores relative to the national average; Second, while Georgia shows improvement Oklahoma shows decline; and Third, Oklahoma’s declines are larger than Georgia’s improvements. These are the results in putatively “high quality” pre-K states. Would anyone without ulterior political motives see them as an argument for borrowing and spending tens of billions of additional federal tax dollars every year?

If taxpayers in certain states around the country think they can improve upon Georgia’s results and avoid falling prey to Oklahoma’s, more power to them. But there is no empirical basis that could justify a federal government role in preK even if the Constitution allowed it one.

Preschool’s Anvil Chorus

Act 2, scene 1 of Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore is marked by a lot Gypsy blacksmiths wailing away on their anvils. Sensibly enough, this has come to be called the “Anvil Chorus.” There is an equally clamorous chorus calling for universal federally-funded preschooling—one that president Obama may join this evening in his State of the Union address. It should be called the Anvil Chorus, too, because if it is successful it will tie an anvil ‘round the neck of early education and American taxpayers.

The trouble with federal-government-funded preschooling is that we have 47 years of experience with it … and it doesn’t work. The federal Head Start pre-K program was created in 1965, and despite decades of concerted efforts to refine and improve it it has virtually no measurable effects that last to the end of the third grade—or even the first. And of the very few and modest effects that have been found at the end of the third grade, some are actually negative. That is what federal government pre-K has accomplished with $200 billion and half a century of effort. Is that a sensible basis for expanding federal government pre-K?

Those large-scale randomized studies of Head Start are not the only indication that federal government spending on pre-K (and K-12) programs is ineffective. We can also look at the performance gap, at the end of high school, between the children of high school dropouts and those of college graduates. This is the key gap—between children in advantaged and disadvantaged families—that federal compensatory education programs set out to close in 1965. Below is a chart I prepared just a few years ago, documenting that gap using the reading section of the best national data set available (the “Long Term Trends” series of the National Assessment of Educational Progress). The results are equally disappointing in math and science (see Figure 20.5, here).

Nor should we be surprised by the failure of federal pre-K-through-12 programs to narrow this gap—they have failed just as badly in their other aim of improving overall student achievement, as the following chart of federal spending and student achievement at the end of high-school reveals.

Overcome by the sound of their own chorus, universal federal pre-K advocates are deaf to this evidence. For the sake of the children they seek, ineffectually, to help, let’s hope they are unable to fasten their anchor around the necks of current and future generations of taxpayers.