Mike Kueber's Blog

February 16, 2013

High-quality early education

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 10:58 pm
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In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for America to provide Pre-K schooling for all of its kids.  He characterized this initiative as an investment because “every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” 

Two components of Obama’s assertion caught my eye:

  1. High-quality.  By using this modifier, President Obama’s statistical analysis would be able to exclude data from any early-education program that was ineffective.  By definition, this is cherry-picking.
  2. More than $7 savings for every dollar spent.  This is a very large return on investment, and I wondered how squishy the data was.

When I attempted to identify research study that supported President Obama’s assertion, I found noting from various fact-checkers of the State of the Union speech.  The following from Fox fact-checking, although helpful, was typical in that it paid no attention to either “high-quality” or “more than $7”:

  • Dozens of studies have shown Head Start graduates are more likely to complete high school than their at-risk peers who don’t participate in the program. But a study last year by the Department of Health and Human Services that found big vocabulary and social development gains for at-risk students in pre-kindergarten programs also found those effects largely faded by the time pupils reached third grade. The report didn’t explain why the kids saw a drop-off in performance or predict how they would fare as they aged.”   

The Fox fact-checking was instructive because, instead of referring to “high-quality” programs, it referred to our nation’s dominant Pre-K program – the federal Head Start program.  Head Start, which was launched in 1965 and really geared up in 1981, was designed to provide comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families (income up to 130% of the federal poverty level. 

Although Head Start spends more than $8 billion a year, and despite all of this time to fine-tune what it is doing, the Department of HHS had recently concluded that the measurably significant gains by Head Start students upon entering kindergarten largely disappear by the third grade.  The following statements were gleaned from the 2012 Executive Summary of the final report:   

  • “The study quantifies the overall impact of Head Start separately for 3- and 4-year-old children in four key program domains-cognitive development, social-emotional development, health status and services, and parenting practices–following them through early elementary school.”
  • “In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.”
  • Final conclusions.  The lasting effects of Head Start and early childhood education in general on children’s outcomes have been the focus of much study. Considering only outcomes through early elementary school and middle childhood, results for the HSIS cognitive outcomes are in line with other experimental and non-experimental early education studies….   However, as we discuss later, some studies, including those that did not show differences in elementary school, reported finding positive effects later in adulthood.  Although the underlying cause of the rapid attenuation of early impacts is an area of frequent speculation, we don’t have a good understanding of this observed pattern….  We do not yet know if there will be positive outcomes for HSIS participants later in life, however, research suggests that positive outcomes later in life are possible. Despite a growing body of research about relatively rapid dissipation of early cognitive impacts, there is some evidence suggesting that positive effects of Head Start may have an impact on participants’ later life such as later school success and early adulthood outcomes.  According to a recent paper by Gibbs, Ludwig, & Miller (2011) such delayed or ‘sleeper’ effects may occur because of the Head Start benefits in the area of children’s social and emotional development, i.e., improved socialization and emotional strength may have later school-related payoffs.”

An extensive article in the NY Times recently provided much useful information regarding the current status of Pre-K in America and President Obama’s proposal: 

  • In the 2010-11 school year, the latest year for which data is available, 28 percent of all four-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in state-financed preschool programs.”
  • “Only five states, including Oklahoma and Georgia, have a stated objective of offering preschool slots to all 4-year-olds. While about 1.1 million students across the country are enrolled in federally financed Head Start programs and others attend private preschools, that still leaves millions of children on the sidelines.”
  • “The president’s plan would provide federal matching dollars to states to provide public preschool slots for four-years olds whose families earn up to 200 percent of the poverty level. President Obama would also allocate extra funds for states to expand public pre-kindergarten slots for middle-class families, who could pay on a sliding scale of tuition.”
  • “Advocates for early education frequently cite research on the long-term benefits of preschool, by James J. Heckman at the University of Chicago and others, showing a link to reduced crime rates, lower dropout rates and eventual higher incomes among those who attend preschool.”
  • “Critics say the federal government has already tested a national preschool program with Head Start. A national study sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services of 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds in 84 local programs found few lasting benefits by third grade.  ‘It’s one thing to say that there are a handful of small pre-K programs that may have had lasting and significant benefits,’ said Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Cato Center for Educational Freedom, a unit of the Cato Institute, a conservative-leaning research organization. ‘It’s another to imagine that the federal government can scale them up nationally.’”
  • “But other education analysts say that Head Start, which receives about $7 billion in federal money annually, is hampered by inconsistent standards and low pay for teachers, who are typically paid less than public school educators.”
  • “In a report released last week, the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research organization, estimated that providing preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds would cost about $98.4 billion in federal spending over 10 years.”

An editorial in today’s NY Times discussed President Obama’s Pre-K proposal and not surprisingly said it was worth pursuing.  But it also provided the best explanation of where Obama’s $7 figure came from:

  • Countless studies have found that preschool education has real value, both for the children and for society as a whole. But design is obviously crucial. The most famous and frequently cited program was conducted at Perry Elementary School in Ypsilanti, Mich., during the 1960s, where the teachers focused on a creative process in which low-income children were encouraged to plan, initiate and discuss their learning activities. In addition to teaching the children for 2.5 hours during the school day, the teachers regularly visited their homes to reinforce the lessons and forge partnership with parents.”
  • “Followed into adulthood, the Perry students were found to have lower dropout and arrest rates and higher incomes than those who had not attended preschool. Research led by James Heckman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, concluded in 2009 that each $1 invested in the Perry program had returned a value of $7 to $12 to society.”

Where do I stand?  I’m all for improving Pre-K, and if the Education Department has some ideas, I’m all ears.  But, as the Cato Institute guy said, “It’s one thing to say that there are a handful of small pre-K programs that may have had lasting and significant benefits.  It’s another to imagine that the federal government can scale them up nationally.”  We already have Head Start for kids up to 130% of the poverty line.  Why not fix the $8 billion Head Start program before doubling down on it?

San Antonio recently adopted a program – Pre-K 4 SA – to do much of what President Obama is now proposing for America.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the proponents of Pre-K 4 SA used the same “high-quality” modifier in describing their proposal.  My opposition to Pre-K 4 SA, however, is different.  I oppose Pre-K 4 SA because the San Antonio City Council has no responsibility or expertise in developing education policy.  The responsibility and expertise rests with our local school boards, and we don’t need the City Council interjecting itself.  If the City had an extra $34 million a year to spend on Pre-K, it should have given the money to the school boards as block grants, which would have gone to all kids, not just poor ones.


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