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December 10 2013

President Obama: Extravagant Claims for Pre-K Education

Charlotte Hays

Two decades ago, psychologist Frances Rauscher conducted an experiment in which she asked 36 college students to listen to different kinds of music before visualizing how a folded-up piece of paper would look when cut and then unfolded.

The results seemed to suggest Mozart might improve spatial reasoning. Nothing earth-shattering there — yet this one small study inspired a nationwide craze. Through something like a national version of the children’s game of telephone, countless Americans glommed on to the idea that playing Mozart to a child in the womb would boost his or her IQ.

This is how A. Barton Hinkle begins a story in Reason magazine on education myths. Some of these myths can be quite harmless—there are probably worse things than being forced to listen to Mozart in the womb. But of course politicians latch onto them. Indeed, the Mozart Myth led then-Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia to direct that new mothers be sent home from the hospital with classical music recordings.

While growing up in a musically literate family may be wonderful, study after study found no benefit for listening to Mozart in the womb or cradle. Zell Miller’s recordings, however, were pretty inexpensive, and I think we can say that no harm was done.

But President Obama’s plans for taxpayer-funded pre-K programs aren’t cheap, and, as with the Mozart Myth, his claims for the utility of such programs are based on wishful thinking. That’s not stopping the president, though:

Back in February, President Obama proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

The claim was bunk. But the president’s proposal enjoys growing support.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine has come out in support of the Start Strong for America’s Children Act, a proposed federal-state program to “expand and improve early childhood education.” Kaine is simpatico with his state’s Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe, who also favors lavish outlays for pre-K education.

But the problem, as Hinkle notes, is that we’ve already been here, done this. We've already tried pre-K education. It's called Head Start, and, though vastly popular, almost sacrosanct in some quarters, Head Start makes virtually no difference in the educational aptitude and subsequent school careers of the children it supposedly serves. Hinkle writes:

In 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services reported on a congressionally mandated study of approximately 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds who were randomly assigned to either a control group or a group that had access to a Head Start program. It found that “at the end of kindergarten and first grade . . . the Head Start children and the control group children were at the same level on many of the measures studied.”

Last year, HHS issued the results of another randomized study. It, too, found that Head Start produced “little evidence of systematic differences” in children’s elementary school experiences through third grade.

It’s pretty damning when the federal government itself concludes that a federal program doesn’t work. But if you’re still not convinced, consider a recent piece by Grover Whitehurst of the liberal Brookings Institution. Whitehurst is a development psychologist who spent his career “designing and evaluating programs intended to enhance the cognitive development of young children.”

The rhetoric supporting the Start Strong legislation, Whitehurst writes, is “entirely predictable and thoroughly misleading. ... If you’re an advocate of strengthening early childhood programs, as I am, you also need to pay careful attention to the evidence — all of it.” And the evidence, he says, “raises doubts on Obama’s preschool for all.”

My colleague Carrie Lukas has also reported on the failure of Head Start to achieve meaningful results. And did I mention that Head Start has cost the American taxpayer $160 billion and still counting?

Hinkle does report that some studies found that Head Start does help prepare kids for kindergarten and that one study even found “modest results” into the fifth grade. But that's not quite what we're being promised by President Obama and Senator Kaine:

[T]he claim being advanced by Obama, Kaine and others is far more sweeping: that pre-K’s benefits last long into the future — so long, in fact, that they raise graduation rates, decrease teenage pregnancy and reduce crime.

It’s possible. It’s also possible that piping Mozart into the womb makes your baby smarter. But shouldn’t government policy — and taxpayer funding — rest on a firmer foundation than that?

In a way, I think that we can argue that much of the enormous popularity of Head Start among low-income families is that Head Start, for all its puffed up claims, is really a form of cheap baby setting service. But it is much easier to sell an “education” program with spurious claims than it is to ask the taxpayer to fork over for an elaborate baby setting service.

If we are going to try to do design expensive programs to help low-income kids, the ones who would avail themselves of the president’s proposed pre-K program, wouldn’t it be better to find things that actually benefit them?

Encouraging parents to marry and create a stable home for the kids, for example, might be a better goal. But that is so much harder than playing Mozart to kids in the womb or packing the kids off to government day care disguised as school.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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