Pre-K

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.

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:

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:

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?

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Earlier this week I was asked to comment on a new study of an old preschool program. The program in question is one of three well known (but geographically limited and now defunct) programs that have been found to have had lasting positive effects on participants. From their results, the authors concluded that the “impacts which endured [from the Chicago Parent Center program] provide a strong foundation for the investment in and promotion of early childhood learning.” By “investment” they seem to mean either state or federal government spending on pre-K programs.

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