From: Drew Robertson
To the editor:
The editors overstate the case in asserting that economists and educators agree with their position in favor of pre-K education. It would be more accurate to say that some economists and educators agree. Others are aware of serious and detailed evidence to the contrary.
Advocates for early childhood education typically rely on small-scale, short-term studies conducted on programs operating under conditions ideal for success. Some of these include no control group for comparison. Known as “hothouse studies,” these investigations do sometimes produce results that seem to support the programs under consideration.
Just as it is difficult for home gardeners to reproduce the beautiful flora they see in hothouses, so also the real world performance of early childhood education programs falls far short of their proponents’ hopes. Large, multi-site, long-term, controlled studies show this, and I will focus on just one of them to make the point.
Head Start is a very well-known, federally funded program launched in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty. Its purpose is to help underprivileged children catch up educationally with their more well-off peers.
Although Head Start has been in existence for decades, no large, well-controlled study of its impact was conducted until Congress mandated one in 1998. That study was begun in 2002 and completed in 2010, with presentation of long-term results unfortunately delayed until the end of 2012.
The Head Start Impact Study reported results after one year of investigation and again several years later, when the participants had completed third grade. I summarize the latter results here. (For those who are interested, I am using the standard of p < 0.05 for statistical significance.)
The investigation examined 11 measures of reading and math skills. Head Start participants showed no improvement on any of these measures, compared to their demographically matched peers who did not participate in the program.
Thirty-four measures of social-emotional, health and parenting practice outcomes were also studied. Head Start participants showed statistically significant differences from their peers on only four of these measures, and two of those differences were negative.
The only reasonable conclusion is that Head Start is of no value to its intended beneficiaries despite many years of effort, many dollars spent and the passionate commitment of its proponents. Similar large and well-conducted studies of like programs are equally disappointing.
Interested readers should consult David B. Muhlhausen’s “Do Federal Social Programs Work?” (Praeger, 2013) for more details on many of these investigations.
Reading through, and reflecting on, such material is moderately challenging, but the effort is repaid in well-formed opinion. There is, after all, no virtue in advocating policies and programs that do not work. Indeed, in our fiscally challenged era, it is important that we eschew them.