Blog No. 27. Pre-K Education: Great Debate or Great Puzzle?

Letter puzzle - BLog 27 believes strongly that early education is important, and that it is imperative in the case of children of lower socioeconomic status. Indeed, It appears that Head Start might have been more aptly named “Catching Up.”  An October 22 article in the New York Times reported a recent study showing that the educational handicaps of such children can be observed from almost the very start:

New research by Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University, which was published in Developmental Science this year, showed that at 18 months children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — “dog” or “ball” — much faster than children from low-income families. By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes.

If the Republican Party is to live up to its aspiration of being “the party of opportunity,” as the 2012 Platform proclaimed, it has no more important task than bringing opportunity to those children.  But, how to do that is not so clear.

In his State of the Union message, President Obama called, as he had a year ago, for a major new program of federal support for early education:

Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education. Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old. And as a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight.

But in the meantime, 30 states have raised pre-k funding on their own. They know we can’t wait. So just as we worked with states to reform our schools, this year we’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children.

A year ago, the President’s budget had proposed to fund the increased investment in early education by an increase in the cigarette tax amounting to $78 Billion, but that proposal met with little enthusiasm on Capitol Hill.  In November, when legislation along the lines of the President’s proposal, the Strong Start for America’s Children Act (Strong Start) was introduced, it contemplated funding (estimated at only $30 Billion) by regular appropriations.

Strong Start was introduced by Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller. It was described as bipartisan on the strength of a single Republican co-sponsor in the House, Congressman Richard Hanna, but prospects for enactment appear unlikely.  It is not clear how either the President’s program or Strong Start would fit in with the existing Head Start program. (In a telephone conversation, a staff member of the Democratic Workforce of the House Committee on Education indicated that the bill would provide an additional revenue stream for Head Start but was unable to explain why an entirely new program was necessary for that purpose.)

The reaction to Strong Start by Senator Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, probably spoke for many colleagues:

Almost everyone supports preschool education but the bill doesn’t make effective use of the billions the feds already spend on early childhood education. This is Washington at its worst: a noble goal, a press conference taking credit, not much federal money, and too many federal mandates, sending the long-term bill to state and local taxpayers.    

Nevertheless, as Senator Alexander suggested, there is bipartisan support for the concept of Pre-K education.  As suggested in Obama’s address, many Republican Governors have supported early education programs in their own states. And two weeks before the State of the Union Address, the bipartisan Omnibus Appropriations Bill restored the sequestration cuts in Head Start and allotted $8.6 Billion for the program, a $1.025 Billion increase.  But serious questions remain as to what to fund by way of a new or expanded program and how to fund it.

Despite President Obama’s expressed confidence in the “research” on Pre-K, evidence of the success of early education programs is modest at best.  Perhaps the most frequently cited study involved the Perry Preschool Program in Michigan in the 1960s which was one of the inspirations for the creation of Head Start in 1965.  Some academic critics, however, have pointed out that this study involved a relatively small number of children and was a more intensive and expensive program than Head Start. So far as Head Start itself is concerned, the most comprehensive study, the 2011 Head Start Impact Study, commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services, found no significant positive effects on the children’s performance in elementary school. (See, generally David J Armor and Sonia Sousa, “The Dubious Promise of Universal Preschool” in National Affairs.

Studies of more recent state programs in Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee have also appeared inconclusive or discouraging. See, e.g., Elizabeth U. Cusio and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, “The Impacts of Expanding Access to High-Quality Preschool Education,” Economic Studies at Brookings (Georgia and Oklahoma) and Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, “New Evidence Raises Doubts on Obama’s Preschool for All,” Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution (Tennessee). Reviewing data from Tennessee, as well as earlier studies, Whitehurst concluded:

Based on what we have learned from these studies, the most defensible conclusion is that these statewide programs are not working to meaningfully increase the academic achievement or social/emotional skills and dispositions of children from low-income families.  I wish this weren’t so, but facts are stubborn things.  Maybe we should figure out how to deliver effective programs before the federal government funds preschool for all.

Nevertheless, the day after the State of the Union Address, January 29, was “Pre-K Day” on the op-ed page of The New York Times.  In her column, Gail Collins caught the mood by observing:

All of a sudden, early childhood education is really, really popular. Everybody’s favorite. If early childhood education were an actor, it would be Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep. If it were a video game, it would be Candy Crush or Angry Birds, minus the spyware.

Collins, however, went on to note that, while the concept of early education has bipartisan support, no one has figured out a politically acceptable source of funding. Ms. Collins also ignored the fact that there is considerable debate as to just how effective Pre-K education is and whether we know what the ingredients of a successful program are.

On the opposite side of the same page, Nicholas Kristof’s column was headed “Pre-K, the Great Debate.” Kristof endorsed the President’s current proposal and cited public support for his earlier proposal including approval of 60% of Republicans and 84% of Democrats. On the other hand, Kristof did acknowledge critics who had pointed out that Head Start and other Pre-K programs had produced very little in the way of “cognitive gains” (skills in reading and math) that could be observed in Kindergarten and thereafter.

Nevertheless, Kristof argued that the answer to such critics lies in research appearing to show that, as he put it, “mysteriously, there are often long-term improvements on things that matter even more, such as arrest rates and high school graduation rates.”  Speculating on the “mystery,” Kristof continued, “So where does this sleeper effect come from? Nobody is quite sure. Maybe children learn self-discipline, patience or grit. Or maybe parents do.” Maybe, indeed. But it is difficult as a matter of policy, and even more difficult as a matter of politics, to justify committing billions of dollars to create a new program (or expand an old one) on the basis of mystery and speculation.

One of the studies cited by Kristof conceded that:

[I]t would be foolhardy to leap to conclusions about the long-term efficacy of a large program like Head Start on the basis of a single study. Much remains to be discovered about the nature and distribution of longer-term benefits from early childhood education.

Moreover, even if one gives full credit for the “long-term benefits” cited by Kristof, should it not be possible to design a program that also yields sustained and measurable gains in academic achievement?

The center of the Times page displayed a cogent op-ed piece entitled “How to get More Early Bloomers,” by Professors Daniel T. Willingham and David W. Grissmer of the University of Virginia. The writers disputed President Obama’s 2013 claim, (“We know this works”), and argued that “the state of research is actually much murkier.” In particular, they were critical of preschools “that focus mostly on social activities (as the federal Head Start program does).”

Other critics of Head Start, writing in Education Week, had charged that Head Start was handicapped by a myriad of bureaucratic regulations:

Head Start providers seeking federal funding are assessed for compliance with hundreds of arcane procedural regulations, such as the Kafkaesque requirement that “a variety of food is served which broadens each child’s food experiences.” Effectiveness at broadening a 3-year-old’s culinary horizons hardly seems the best criterion for evaluating early-childhood education providers.

Indeed, it is not clear what the federal role in Pre-K education should be. Despite federal support in the No Child Left Behind program, and its successor, Race to the Top, responsibility for K-12 education, in terms of both funding and design, rests primarily with state and local governments and is almost certain to remain there.  Should Pre-K education be different?

In terms of evaluating early education efforts, Messrs. Willingham and Grissner pointed out that “comparing preschool programs is hard because quality depends not just on factors in the classroom like the curriculum and the teacher’s skill, but also on how those factors interact with sleep, nutrition, parenting and other aspects of domestic life. Yet we know little about such interactions.” Accordingly, they proposed, among other things, “a national study (enrolling perhaps 15,000 children) that would collect detailed information about the family and the preschool, beginning at age 3 and continuing through at least second grade.”

Willingham and Grissner were not the first to suggest the need for a rigorous and carefully designed assessment program.  David J. Armor and Sonia Sousa had previously proposed a national demonstration program for approximately 20,000 students “in a selected number of cities and states, accompanied by a rigorous randomized evaluation that would follow participants at least into the third grade.” They noted that such an assessment could be carried out at a cost of only 2% to 3% of Head Start annual budget.

Having insisted that the riddle of Pre-K education has been solved, the Obama  Administration is likely to be unreceptive to the idea that existing programs are in need of further assessment. But the case is there to be made. Moreover, even in the advance of such a study, as Willingham and Sousa pointed out, the federal government could do more to compile and disseminate information  presently available on what does and doesn’t work. (“Such communication is currently not a priority, but it could increase the proportion of good schools pretty painlessly.”)

While there is no justification for expanding or duplicating expensive programs of marginal utility, the answer is not simply to ignore the problems they were created to address.  RINOs should encourage our fellow Republicans to take the lead in insisting that rigorous assessments be undertaken, that existing programs be modified, and that new programs (at the federal or state level) be designed accordingly. Adequate funding for such programs will then be easier to justify and to provide.

5 thoughts on “Blog No. 27. Pre-K Education: Great Debate or Great Puzzle?

  • Such great commentary…I was writing a long comment when I inadvertently hit the wrong “key” when I got up from my computer to let the cat in, and my missive went off into cyberspace (Head Start computer classes for oldsters, anyone?). Anyhow, I won’t bore you by reiterating my deleted ramblings, but I would like to post my agreement with the point made by John Swindell (in his excellent comment of February 7th), to wit, that in the absence of parents’ engagement in their children’s education and dedication to their children’s long-term success, early-childhood education programs are unlikely to yield measurable and sustained gains in academic achievement.
    I personally support early-childhood education for the purpose of giving the children of poorly-educated (and/or non-English-speaking) “aspirational” parents the opportunity to catch-up with their more-advantaged peers, but I think we must, as a society, face the (perhaps “politically incorrect”) fact that no program is likely to overcome parental indifference to a child’s academic performance.

  • Another excellent review of a difficult cultural issue which, if combined with a re-reading of the previous RINOcracy post titled: Poverty and Marriage, will provide the broad context to the most pressing challenge to American society – Income inequality/social mobility/diminished middle class. Coincidentally, February 4 marked the publication date of “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.” In this new book, Amy Chua of “Tiger Mom” fame (with co-author and spouse Jed Rubenfeld) continues her attack on permissive parenting. Chua’s triple package consists of 1) cultural superiority complex, 2) feelings of insecurity, and 3) impulse control. The thesis is that certain cultural groups in America exhibit these traits and, as a result, succeed no matter the circumstances of the family. One might reasonably wonder at the corollary proposition – that cultural groups which most lack the ‘triple package’ would suffer the lowest levels of success. Whatever one may think about Chua’s cultural views, the point I take is that we have a multilayer cake of success in the world today. The foundation layers consist of family structure and educational opportunities, and the top layers consist of parental engagement in the education of the children combined with a long-term focus on the future success of the child. With this structure in mind, it is not difficult to comprehend the burden that permissive parenting or, absentee parenting or, worse, fractured family units that our instant gratification society places upon our educational systems. It is no wonder that pre-K programs which are grafted on to a minimal or non-existent family structure are failing to yield sustained and measurable gains in academic performance.

  • One major point we may be overlooking in Head Start and, for that matter, in many branches of government, is this: who assesses the administrators and employees? Sure, they’re nice, caring people, but that’s not enough. A decade spent volunteering in local Head Start Schools convinced me we that without changes from the top down we should not expect to see many advancements among children from low-income families. Too often our funds are misallocated..

    • Great to have a comment from someone with hands-on experience. Anyone else out there? The Harkin/Miller bill would raise teacher qualifications but seems not apply to existing Head Start centers unless they sought funds under that program. (As noted in the blog, the interface between Harkin/Miller and existing Head Start is unclear.)

  • Yes, of course we need more and better research for Head Start. However, along with that there needs to be better trained teachers, and more stable funding in different areas of the country to do the research. If my memory serves me correctly, the program was never fully funded to begin with. By the way, one of my colleagues at Yale was Ed Zigler, Ph.D., who in 1965 was one of the original founders of Head Start. Also, my wife was one of the very early teachers in the program.

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