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What to make of big early education proposals?

Posted by Jim Stergios  February 27, 2013 08:01 AM

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In 2008 President Obama talked about a “zero to five” education plan and a “continuum of child care for children from birth to age 5.” His proposal during the State of the Union address to expand early education for children of parents earning up to 200% of the federal poverty rate is part of making that a reality. (Truth be told, the president keeps mentioning universal early education on the stump and in the SOTU, but his written proposal is far more targeted.)

Governor Patrick also put forward in his State of the Commonwealth address a proposal to create a universal early education program here in Massachusetts. So, what are the pros and cons of these proposals?

You can hear a solid debate on th is topic on WBUR’s Radio Boston, but let me sum up the evidence here.

The evidence. The president and the governor’s arguments that “study after study” demonstrates that a dollar invested in federal and state early education programs will save seven dollars later in life due to lower dropout rates, better student performance and other good things is not true. The president’s reference to “seven dollars’ is drawn from a single study of Chicago programs. The country has a broader and longer experience with the Head Start program, which has been in place for 48 years and upon which we have spent $180 billion.

The results from Head Start, according to a study conducted by its parent federal agency (and buried by the administration, which released the results the Friday before Christmas 2012), are anything but reason for hope:

  • There was no long-term impact on the cognitive abilities of participating children
  • There were no improvements in access to health care
  • There were no improvements to behavior and emotional well-being
  • There were no improvements to the parenting practices of parents.

On a few measures, Head Start actually had negative impacts.

Let's be clear here: Not all early education programs are Head Start. But the fact is that there is vexingly little evidence that early education programs – as currently structured – have has a positive or even lasting impact on student achievement. Ditto on dropout rates, lessening teen pregnancy, and all the other things claimed by the president and the governor.

So, that's evidence from the largest early ed program in the country. Now, let's go to the state data. Several states, like Oklahoma and Georgia, have expansive early education programs; unfortunately, the data does not significantly differ from what we have found in the Head Start program.

Lots of pro-universal early ed advocates will quarrel with what I describe above by referencing boutique programs like the Perry PreSchool and the Carolina Abecedarian Projects conducted, respectively, 40 and 30 years ago. The problem with referencing these unique experience is that they don’t look like early ed programs as we know them. Early education, as proposed by the president and the governor, are one-year programs prior to kindergarten. Abecedarian was an intensive, multi-year program costing $90,000 per child that tracked kids throughout their maturation and adulthood. The Perry Preschool project clocked in at a more affordable $11,000 in today's dollars on an annual basis, but most of the kids participating attended two years of school, not one, and there are few additional studies that confirm its results.

The preponderance of evidence goes in the opposite direction..

Moreover, consider this: Even as the governor is proposing a huge expansion in the current program, the state of Massachusetts has not produced a longitudinal study of the impacts of current public programs. So the governor is asking us to fly blind – on the basis of emotion. That is unfortunately the MO of many of the recent state reforms such as so-called innovation schools and extended learning time. There is no empirical basis for the establishment or continuation, yet somehow that is what we are doing.

High-quality early education and the crowdout effect. Any benefits from early education are based upon having high-quality programs. Just what constitutes “high-quality” is, as you might imagine in education discussions, up for grabs. Central to the conversation is the debate over structure and content.

The advocacy world behind universal early education in Massachusetts is for the most part against using their programs to focus on literacy, numeracy and the inculcation of basic habits that will lead to strong academic performance in later years. They insist on lots of play and “the things all kids should do.” When former president and chancellor of Boston University John Silber talked about targeting early education to increase the chances of getting kids to gain reading proficiency, he was talking about inculcating the cultural and educational foundations that most of the children of the well-to-do benefit from were available to inner city kids.

And his view was that kids could at a much younger age engage in real school work, to the point that he thought that it made sense to make a "Grand Bargain" tradeoff, wherein we would extend education to Pre-K and get rid of the 12th grade. Very different mindset from those who have told me "yes on some basic literacy" but more importantly the focus would be on safety, play and socialization.

A content-driven focus is not likely to be the defining thrust of publicly funded programs in Massachusetts. If it were, we would already see a strong presence of that view in the current set of public Pre-K offerings.

The president’s early ed plan is based on creating some curricular frameworks for early education programs, but the standards the feds are looking to put into place are extensions (downward) from the K-12 Common Core national standards. Given that the Common Core has reduced the focus on literature in early grade reading, anything that preschool adds to reading ability will likely have no impact. One wonders if federal policymakers are looking to bring nonfiction offerings even into pre-K.

As is the case with the governor's plan, it is sure to come with standardizing the teacher and early care corps -- and likely unionizing it.

Currently in Massachusetts 70% of the pre-K-age population is in some pre-K program, with programs ranging from privately funded, mixed private-public programs, and fully public programs. With his proposal to put $350 million into making early education universal, there is the distinct possibility that the public funds will displace a significant portion of the private offerings. That is a problem for two reasons. Clearly, the private offerings are in some cases of a higher quality than the public offerings. Even when that is not the case, the public system always tends to render uniform important aspects of programs (often for reasons of “fairness” and “accountability”). The intrusion of public programs and funding into a space that is largely privately funded today will likely remove the nuances in programming.

That is, we are back to the conversations around structure versus lack of structure for kids. We all know kids that thrive with a highly structured program, and we also know others who need greater flexibility. All kids are different, and trying to squeeze them into a more homogenized system removes our ability as parents to make the right choices for our kids.

My takeaways from this debate are as follows:

  • Early education, if done well, can be helpful to kids.

  • All kids have different needs and a public system will not be able to take into consideration the vast variety of needs and situations of kids at a tender age.

  • The feds and state policymakers really do need to read their own reports. Head Start is a mess, and all the baloney about how it is working, which is restated in speech after speech around the country by Arne Duncan and the President, amounts to willful irresponsibility at the least.

  • There are lots of reasons to question the efficacy of even a well-planned early education expansion. A well-designed program, which would need to provide flexibility, curricular options and accountability, would present huge challenges to implement.

  • None of this pays for itself notwithstanding the “one dollar for seven” talking points bandied about are for one dollar in payments now that provide seven dollars of benefits (to the individual) over a lifetime. And those are from a single study in Chicago. As noted above, the preponderance of evidence from state and federal programs is actually not in line with those talking points.

  • Whatever we do, we must avoid displacing current high-quality programs. Rather, we should seek to build on their diversity and strengths.

  • The president’s targeted proposal is far preferable to the governor’s.

  • The best way to provide flexibility for the uniqueness of our kids and for the needs of parents is to expand tax credits for families to purchase their own early education services. For poor families, for whom tax credits are not an effective strategy, we will have to come up with a pot of money they can direct to a program of their choice, based on their own kids' needs. Families will best know what their kids’ specific needs are.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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