October 17 2013

Universal Pre-K: The Dirty Little Secret

Charlotte Hays

Perhaps now that he has succeeded in having the debt ceiling raised, President Obama will be thinking about universal pre-K, a pet project of his that doesn’t come for free.

President Obama, who touted universal pre-K in his February State of the Union address, isn’t the only progressive politician who longs for pre-K. Bill de Blasio, the likely next mayor of New York, is eager to raise taxes on “the rich” to take in an additional $530 million a year--mostly for pre-K for lower-income kids.

Low-income kids deserve educational breaks. Universal pre-K may not be that break.

As Red Jahncke, a prominent management consultant, points out in today’s Wall Street Journal, there’s a problem with pre-K—such programs have “negligible educational value,” while being “massively expensive.”

The president noted in the SOTU that “studies” show the value of pre-K. But Jahncke points out that the most famous of these studies, a study of the Perry Preschool Project in the 1960s—often cited as a reason to spend on pre-K—doesn’t show lasting value of such programs.  Perry studied a program involving 123 “at risk” low-IQ (70-80) kids from a poor neighborhood. For starters, the number of kids involved is too small to be statistically useful.

The children were divided into two groups—a group of children who received extraordinary pre-school enrichment program, and a control group that didn’t. The quality of the pre-K education in the first group was better than what is available in most public schools. There were monthly meetings between parents and teachers and home visits.

What happened?

The Perry project claimed a large gain in IQ—15 points. But the gain had disappeared by the end of third grade. Perry claimed other big gains—but not much in learning. In fact 80% of reported gains constituted savings to society (e.g., incarceration costs) from fewer crimes committed by the study group relative to the control group.

Although Head Start, which came after the Perry Project, is wildly popular—closing several Head Start programs was deemed one of the particular ignominies of the government shutdown—the results are similar: no long-lasting benefits for the kids. As my colleague Carrie Lukas has explained:

Data collection for the first phase of the “National Head Start Impact Study,” began in 2002 and ended in 2006, tracking Head Start participants from ages 3- and 4-years old through first grade. In 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services extended the study to track these students through the end of third grade to determine whether Head Start yields lasting benefits.

In January 2010, after four years of “analysis,” the HHS Department finally released the results on Head Start’s impact on first graders. The study found that, compared to their control group peers, Head Start failed to boost students’ cognitive abilities across 41 measures. Moreover, first grade teachers reported that former Head Start students were actually less prepared in math than the non-Head Start students.

Taxpayers don't deserve to be saddled with bills for educational programs that have no long-lasting effect—except to provide jobs for bureaucrats.

The first step to giving low-income kids a real head start in life is facing up to what works and what doesn’t. Hallowed as it is, Head Start appears not to work. A second step might be promoting the idea of married, two-parent households. Better discipline and more rigorous classes might also prove attractive options.

But let’s get honest about what universal pre-K really is. Jahncke writes:  

Action speaks: If parents enroll seven out of 10 children in some kind of preschool, then that choice demonstrates that almost everyone supports preschool programs of some kind, especially to enable parents to work. And that's what this is really about: Providing parents with free day care under the guise of education.

Pre-K is really glorified babysitting. It is a variation on the theme of day care.

If the president and Mr. de Blasio want the taxpayer to pick up the tab, then at least they should be honest about what is being offered. 

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