Tag: Pre-K

Not a “Better Way” on Education

Yesterday, the House GOP released a report called A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America. Alas, at least in education, only if you think doing basically the same thing we’re doing right now is a “better way” could this report please you. And there is little to suggest what we’re doing now is working.

Start with pre-k education. While acknowledging the undeniable—“gold-standard” research commissioned by the feds themselves has shown federal Head Start has no discernable, lasting benefits—the report does not call for even decreasing Head Start spending, much less eliminating the program. No, it proclaims that early-childhood programs are very important and what Washington should do—again, with no talk about actually decreasing funding—is “streamline” duplicative programs and fund more research into “what works.” Because states, or local governments, or philanthropists, could never fund such research!

That’s not a better way. That is a way, maybe, to mute attacks that Republicans “don’t care” about little children or the poor. So maybe it’s a politically better way. But it isn’t a better way on policy.

At the elementary and secondary level, the report says nice things about choice, including the DC voucher program, which is all well and good. It also touts the Every Student Succeeds Act—the replacement for No Child Left Behind—before, frankly, we know what it is going to look like in practice. More and more, it seems the law may have given too much power to the U.S. Secretary of Education, which the report warns against in only the broadest terms.

A better way? We’ll see.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the report’s higher education discussion. Basically, the better way is—of course—to “streamline” stuff, including federal regulations, while failing to even mention the mountain of evidence that federal student aid—all $161 billion of it—fuels rampant price inflation and student debt; encourages massive noncompletion; finances credential inflation; and abets demand for on-campus water parks and other extreme amenities.

While we’re on the subject, the report falls all over itself to tout Pell Grants, but it would sure be refreshing if someone, in looking for a better way for everyone—taxpayers included—were to at least note how fundamentally unfair Pell Grants are. A huge benefit of completing college is to greatly increase one’s lifetime earnings—to use a term some people find distasteful, to profit—and what Pell says is you should be able to make that profit with other people’s money and no obligation to pay them back. How’s that fair?

There is one more omission from the report: any mention of the Constitution, and whether it gives the federal government authority to do any of these things. But if whether the programs work doesn’t matter, probably no one is going to care about a minor, abstract thing like the rule of law.

The “better way” on all these issues would be to be frank about the effects of federal policies, what the federal government is constitutionally permitted to do, and act accordingly. But that seems to be asking way too much.

NCLB Compromise Looking Pretty Bad

Is pre-kindergarten part of elementary and secondary education? By definition, no. But according to preliminary reports about what is in a compromise to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act – really, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a preschool “competitive grant” program will be added to the law. And that’s just one of several troubling items that will reportedly be in the final legislation.

One hallmark of good lawmaking are laws that are easily understood by the people, and larding on lots of items not germane to the topic of a law is one way to move away from that democratic ideal. Adding pre-k to the ESEA lards on, though as I’ll discuss in a moment, apparently the preschool addition isn’t all that will heavily complicate the legislation.

The bigger problem with expanding federal funding and reach on preschool is that the evidence is preschool has few if any lasting benefits, at least that have been rigorously documented for any large, modern efforts. Infamously, that includes Head Start and Early Head Start, which the federal government’s own studies have found to be largely impotent, and in the case of Early Head Start, potentially detrimental to some groups. The compromise would apparently also keep the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which federal research has also shown to be impotent or even counterproductive, but at least it is k-12.

New SOTU Education Promises Just Like the Old SOTU Education Promises

What should President Obama have said about education policy in this year’s State of the Union address? In a more perfect world, he would have announced his plan to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education in order to restore control of education policy to the state and local governments where it constitutionally belongs.

In that imaginary world, the President also would have called for an expansion of the Washington D.C. school choice program, where the federal government actually has legitimate constitutional authority, and used his bully pulpit to promote state-level educational choice programs across the country as a means of reducing inequality and expanding opportunity. And he would have announced that his administration would no longer seek to keep low-income black kids in failing government schools in Louisiana.

Alas, what President Obama proposed instead were mostly the same tired themes we’ve already heard in previous SOTU addresses. 

Once again, the president called for Congress to enact universal preschool (and threatened to go around them if they did not), claiming that “research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education.” The research to which he alludes concerned a very small and high-quality program for disadvantaged children. (It’s notable that the president dramatically scaled down the audacity of his claims since last year’s SOTU.) There’s absolutely no evidence that the government could scale up the program for all children nationwide with the same level of quality.

Indeed, when the federal government has tried to do so, it has failed. The federal government’s own study of Head Start was so negative that the Obama administration released it on the Friday before Christmas, practically guaranteeing that almost no one would ever hear about it. Nearly fifty years and $200 billion later, Head Start produces no measurable, lasting benefits. To argue that “this time will be different” is magical thinking.

And once again, the president claimed that he “[wants] to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt.” If so, he should propose phasing out federal student loans and Pell Grants, which are spurring the rapid increases in tuition.

Fortunately, outside the administration’s push for Common Core, few of the administration’s SOTU-promoted education initiatives ever get off the ground.

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.

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:

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.

Like Its Big Sibling, Early Head Start Not Built to Last

People used to laugh nervously about the federal government taking over their lives “from cradle to grave.” But at least since the passage of Obamacare—not to mention the two-dimensional Utopia of Julia—that has seemed a much more concrete prospect. And with President Obama’s new proposals to expand federal pre-kindergarten programs going all the way to age zero, the cradle is now fully in play.

We’ve heard a lot about pre-K for years, but focused mainly on the age 3-to-5 set. For the federal government that means Head Start, an $8 billion program that has been shown again and again to have essentially no lasting benefits. But since the mid-1990s Washington has also run something called Early Head Start aimed at infants and toddlers.

It’s probably safe to say that few people know much about Early Head Start, which is too bad because, if the debate goes anything like that for overall pre-K, there will be many deceptive claims suggesting it has nearly miraculous effects. Indeed, yesterday Washington Post “Wonkblog” contributor Dylan Matthews wrote that Early Head Start has “proven very effective in randomized controlled trials.” To back the claim he linked to “The Promising Practices Network” which, citing three studies, did indeed designate the program “proven.”

But is it? The answer is emphatically “no,” just like regular Head Start. The positive effects disappear by, at the latest, fifth grade, meaning recipients would have ultimately been as well off had they not gone through the program. As the authors write in the conclusion to the third study cited by the Promising Practices Network:

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.

That is not the only bad news for Early Head Start. While some lasting, positive effects were found for some subgroups, so were many negative effects. And for the families and children designated “highest risk”-–-those who needed help the most-–-the effects of Early Head Start were awful: