Tag: universal

Pre-K Poll Vaulting

Just as President Obama has vowed to regain the initiative and push forward with his economic and education policy agenda, an organization called The First Five Years Fund has released a new poll asking the public about Pre-K policy. According to the poll, Americans know what they want (More federally funded Pre-K!), and know when they want it (NOW!).

Encouraging as this must be for supporters of a larger federal role in early education, opinion polling is not a good way to design policy—any more than it is a good way to design bridges. There is an aspect of bridge construction in which public opinion does properly figure: assessing demand. But when it comes to actually designing the structure that will carry living, breathing people across a gorge, public opinion plays little role. The reason is obvious: most people lack the time, skills, and knowledge to design bridges. They know what they ultimately want out of civil engineering projects, but they don’t know how best to achieve their goals.

It’s the same with education policy, and indeed with policy generally. Contrary to the apparent assumption of these early education advocates, it is not inherently obvious that increased federal Pre-K spending will ensure that children get a strong start in life. As it happens, there is a great deal of evidence that past and current federal Pre-K programs have proven expensive failures and have even, in some cases, done harm. Nor is the advocates’ currently favored policy–federally subsidized state Pre-K programs–an obviously good idea. Some states with universal Pre-K programs have actually seen their 4th grade test scores decline relative to the national average. There is no clear pattern of success.

Because of that fact, this is precisely not the sort of policy that should be expensively promoted at the federal level. If states wish to gamble that they can succeed where others have failed, then their residents should be the ones who put their money on the line. That approach has the merit that state politicians can be more easily held accountable than federal ones—voters have fewer issues on which to decide whom to support or oppose at the state level.

Well-meaning as the First Five Years Fund and its philanthropic backers no doubt are, their effort to design policy based on public opinion polling is badly misguided. It is little better than a schoolyard taunt that “everyone else wants to do it.” Serious people, people who actually want to achieve their stated goals and not simply win a political contest, can do better.

One Nation, Under-Informed

Universal PreK Advocates Cherry Pick Studies

Nation writer Rick Perlstein suffered paroxysms last week over my dismissal of the evidence for universal pre-K, which he defended as “Nobel Prize-winning research.” Perlstein is mistaken. Though James Heckman, a leading preschool advocate, is indeed a Nobel laureate, he was awarded the prize for brilliant but unrelated work on statistical methods.

Far from being “Nobel Prize-winning,” the empirical case for universal government pre-K collapses under mild scrutiny. The central claim, as voiced by President Obama in his SOTU speech, is that “every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on.” This sweeping statement does not in fact refer to the typical  return from federal or state pre-K programs. It refers to the findings from a single intensive 1960s early childhood experiment  that served 58 children in Ypsilanti, Michigan—the High/Scope Perry preschool program. Out of the literally hundreds of preschool studies conducted in the past half-century, the Perry results are not representative and have never been reproduced on a national or even a state level. In fact, an earnest experimental effort to reproduce them for just a few hundred children at eight locations failed despite an annual investment of $32,000 per child, adjusted for inflation—far more than the President currently contemplates spending.

The president’s case for universal government pre-K singles out the unusually large positive effects of one tiny study—sometimes two or three—from scores of others that show little benefit, no benefit, or even significant harm to participating students. That sea of inferior results, moreover, is drawn in large part from …the federally-funded pre-K efforts of the past 47 years. Indeed the largest, best designed, most recent studies of federal pre-K efforts were published by the Obama administration itself: the Head Start Impact Studies. These studies find little or no net lasting benefit to federal pre-K. The Obama administration was apparently so worried about these findings that the most recent study was released on the Friday before Christmas—despite a publication date on its title page of October 2012.

What we have here, in other words, is a monumental act of cherry picking rather than an example of scientifically grounded policymaking.

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.

No, Race Doesn’t Explain Disappointing Results in “High Quality” Pre-K States

After my previous post showing the lackluster overall achievement trends in states with purportedly “high quality” universal pre-K programs, one response was that this might miss better results among minority students. Well, I’ve had a chance now to chart the results for African American kids and… they’re slightly worse. See below. Can we now, finally, stop for a moment and reflect before lavishing tens of billions of dollars we don’t have on a federal expansion of such programs?

“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.