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.