Tag: universal pre-K

President Obama and the Case of the Missing Research

One of President Obama’s favorite rhetorical tactics is to claim that there is no serious evidence pointing in any direction other than his preferred policy. The president had occasion to deploy this tactic in an interview earlier this week, when Bill O’Reilly asked him why he opposed school vouchers:

O’REILLY - The secret to getting a … good job is education. … Now, school vouchers is a way to level the playing field. Why do you oppose school vouchers when it would give poor people a chance to go to better schools?

PRESIDENT OBAMA - Actually — every study that’s been done on school vouchers, Bill, says that it has very limited impact if any —

O’REILLY - Try it.

PRESIDENT OBAMA - On — it has been tried, it’s been tried in Milwaukee, it’s been tried right here in DC —

O’REILLY [OVERLAP] - And it worked here.

PRESIDENT OBAMA - No, actually it didn’t. When you end up taking a look at it, it didn’t actually make that much of a difference. ... As a general proposition, vouchers has not significantly improved the performance of kids that are in these poorest communities —

The most charitable interpretation of the president’s blatantly false remarks is that he’s simply unaware that 11 of 12 gold-standard studies of school choice programs found a positive impact while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative outcome. Jason Riley summarized the findings of a few recent studies:

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.