Universal pre-K for American children: why are we not doing this?
We have extensive evidence that pre-K education programs make a huge difference in the early learning trajectories of children (David Brooks accurately cites the the Perry and Abecedarian projects as stunning successes). There's evidence that it could reduce poverty and increase the most important aspect of America: social mobility. Social mobility is why America is America -- and universal pre-K helps make that possible.
Head Start has had a difficult time showing the same kind of successes, but many states have supplemented and refined it to actually produce effective results. The Obama administration's plan is to enhance these state improvements by providing funding, and measuring their results -- in other words, it's a perfectly federalist solution. States do all the work, the federal government measures their success and buttresses their efforts financially.
The key: score some incremental improvement through state experimentation. That improvement early in life becomes a key advantage later in life.
When Families Fail
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: February 14, 2013
Today millions of American children grow up in homes where they don’t learn the skills they need to succeed in life. Their vocabularies are tiny. They can’t regulate their emotions. When they get to kindergarten they’ve never been read a book, so they don’t know the difference between the front cover and the back cover.
But, starting a few decades ago, we learned that preschool intervention programs could help. The efforts were small and expensive, but early childhood programs like the Perry and Abecedarian projects made big differences in kids’ lives. The success of these programs set off a lot of rhapsodic writing, including by me, about the importance of early childhood education. If government could step in and provide quality preschool, then we could reduce poverty and increase social mobility.
But this problem, like most social problems, is hard. The big federal early childhood program, Head Start, has been chugging along since 1965, and the outcomes are dismal. Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution summarizes the findings of the most rigorous research: “There is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start. Further, children attending Head Start remain far behind academically once they are in elementary school. Head Start does not improve the school readiness of children from low-income families.”
Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. Over the past several years, there’s been a flurry of activity, as states and private groups put together better early childhood programs. In these programs, the teachers are better trained. There are more rigorous performance standards. The curriculum is better matched to the one the children will find when they enter kindergarten.
These state programs, in places like Oklahoma, Georgia and New Jersey, have not been studied as rigorously as Head Start. There are huge quality differences between different facilities in the same state or the same town. The best experts avoid sweeping conclusions. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that these state programs can make at least an incremental difference in preparing children for school and in getting parents to be more engaged in their kids’ education.
These programs do not perform miracles, but incremental improvements add up year by year and produce significantly better lives.
Enter President Obama. This week he announced the most ambitious early childhood education expansion in decades. Early Thursday morning, early education advocates were sending each other ecstatic e-mails. They were stunned by the scope of what Obama is proposing.
But, on this subject, it’s best to be hardheaded. So I spent Wednesday and Thursday talking with experts and administration officials, trying to be skeptical. Does the president’s plan merely expand the failing federal effort or does it focus on quality and reform? Is the president trying to organize a bloated centralized program or is he trying to be a catalyst for local experimentation?
So far the news is very good. Obama is trying to significantly increase the number of kids with access to early education. The White House will come up with a dedicated revenue stream that will fund early education projects without adding to the deficit. These federal dollars will be used to match state spending, giving states, many of whom want to move aggressively, further incentive to expand and create programs.
But Washington’s main role will be to measure outcomes, not determine the way states design their operations. Washington will insist that states establish good assessment tools. They will insist that pre-K efforts align with the K-12 system. But beyond that, states will have a lot of latitude.
Should early education centers be integrated with K-12 school buildings or not? Should the early childhood teachers be unionized or certified? Obama officials say they want to leave those sorts of questions up to state experimentation. “I’m just about building quality,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me. The goal is to make the federal oversight as simple as possible.
That’s crucial. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how to educate children that young. The essential thing is to build systems that can measure progress, learn and adapt to local circumstances. Over time, many children will migrate from Head Start into state programs.
This is rude to say, but here’s what this is about: Millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills. It’s about getting kids from disorganized homes into rooms with kids from organized homes so good habits will rub off. It’s about instilling achievement values where they are absent.
President Obama has taken on a big challenge in a realistic and ambitious way. If Republicans really believe in opportunity and local control, they will get on board.
Some great stuff here.
Hey Congress: Pre-K is a better investment than the stock market
Posted by Dylan Matthews
on February 13, 2013 at 10:32 am
Perhaps the biggest proposal in the State of the Union was President Obama’s plan to make preschool for all 4-year-olds a basic service in every state of the union. That policy, which effectively adds a full year to the nation’s public education mandate, has significant upfront costs. Obama argued that the benefits would, however more than make up for it. What was he talking about — and is he right?
We touched on this in our footnoting last night, but Obama is riffing off considerable literature suggesting that early childhood education is a tremendously effective investment. Unlike many areas of policy, a number of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have been conducted to measure the effects of high-quality early childhood education.
The most influential are the Perry Preschool Project and the Carolina Abecedarian Project. Those are two randomized trials, conducted in 1960s Michigan and 1970s North Carolina, respectively. Participants have been followed ever since so as to ascertain long-term outcomes in terms of things like incarceration rates, teen pregnancy, average education level, average income, and more. Because the studies were randomized, we can know beyond a reasonable doubt that any significant differences are due to the influence of the preschool programs.
Both found huge economic and social gains to high-quality preschool. The upfront costs of each were relatively high, with Perry costing about $18,000 a year initially, but the return on investment was, as Obama said, enormous. The best work on Perry, in particular, has been done by James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago who won the 2002 Nobel prize for his work on improving econometric methods. He put those skills to use evaluating the benefits of preschool programs.
Heckman and his coauthors started from the observation that those who received preschool in the Perry experiment ended up earning more money — and thus paying more taxes — as well as using fewer criminal justice system resources (because they committed fewer crimes) and receiving less in the way of welfare, food stamps and other transfer payments. He tried to determine the annual return on investment, using those cost reductions to society, and to the government in particular, as benefits and comparing them to the upfront $18,000 a year cost.
He found that the annualized rate of return was somewhere between 7 percent and 10 percent. For comparison, historically the stock market has grown an average of 5.8 percent each year. Bonds have grown less. By this calculus, early childhood education is a better investment than either. And those benefits compound over time. If you assume the conservative estimate of 7 percent annual returns, that’s a sixty-fold increase over 60 years. Abecedarian was similarly successful. Thirty-six percent of recipients of early childhood ed going to college, compared to 14 percent of non-participants.
What’s going on here? Heckman’s theory, which he explained both in an essay in “Boston Review” and an episode of “This American Life,” is that preschool programs help kids develop “non-cognitive skills.” Traditionally, we think of school as imparting book smarts: adding and multiplying, reading and writing, foreign languages, etc. But especially for young students, they also teach skills like patience, cooperation, planning and delaying gratification. Over time, those basic self-discipline skills become immensely valuable, enabling other learning and making students better participants in institutions like schools and workplaces.
That’s not to say these conclusions aren’t subject to criticism. Perry and Abecedarian both used small samples. The latter used 57 students in the treatment group and 54 in the control, while Perry had 58 and 65, respectively. The initial study for each was pretty costly, so it’s easy to see why bigger studies haven’t been conducted, and the fact that even with such small samples results were found is striking. But it’s not an insignificant concern. Also potentially distorting outcomes is the fact that Perry only served African-American children with IQs one to two standard deviations below the mean — this is, students were were seriously mentally handicapped, and, especially given that this was the 1960s, socially persecuted.
The validity of the findings to students of average intelligence, and in more privileged social classes, is thus disputable. Abecedarian’s similar findings in a population not screened for IQ put some of those worries to rest, but that program also targeted an overwhelmingly poor, black population. The fact that we have proven programs that work in socially disadvantaged communities is tremendous, but does limit one’s ability to impute outcomes outside those contexts, and the political will to pursue programs that work best at helping the worst-off in society may not be forthcoming.
So “high-quality” preschool works, at least for poor communities. But what do we mean by “high-quality”? When talking to experts like Heckman, one gets the sense that it’s a euphemism for “not Head Start.” One would expect the 40-year-old pre-K program to do worse than Perry, considering as its $7,000-$9,000 average cost per student, per year is about half that of Perry’s. And sure enough, many evaluations of Head Start are hardly promising.
A randomized trial run by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which runs Head Start, found some effects in the first few years for program participants, but those benefits faded away by grade school. Some Head Start supporters, like Danielle Ewen, formerly of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), argue that this says more about K-12, and that what’s likely happening is that poor quality public schools are actually reversing Head Start’s gains.
And more recent research may yet salvage it. David Deming at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has found that Head Start provides 80 percent of the gains of Perry or Abecedarian. That study, unlike ACF’s, isn’t randomized and thus less valuable, but it’s still worth noting. In any case, the program doesn’t have nearly the empirical backing that more comprehensive — and expensive in upfront terms — programs like Perry or Abecedarian do.
What about state programs? William Gormley, a professor at Georgetown, has extensively evaluated Oklahoma’s pre-K program and found that participants are much better off than Head Start participants in terms of cognitive development. He also has found that the programs makes students more prepared for school, with participants doing 52 percent better on tests of their ability to recognize words. New Jersey has a court-ordered preschool program for poor districts whose participants, one evaluation found, do better on reading, writing, math and oral skills, and are half as likely to be kept back a grade. A 2004 evaluation of Georgia’s program found gains for four-year-olds on cognitive skills and math. Those studies rely on controlling for factors like race and income, and thus are less reliable than randomized studies, but worth noting all the same.
There’s some dispute as to whether Head Start does any good, and it’s fair to question the benefit of high-quality preschool for privileged students who’ll do fine anyway. But the overwhelming bulk of the evidence suggests that there are few better investments for poor children. The costs more than pay for themselves over time.
Jon Cohn breaks down the specifics, as much as he can.
The Complexities of Obama's Universal Pre-Kindergarten Plan
BY JONATHAN COHN
February 13, 2013
The most important proposal in President Barack Obama's State of the Union address may be one that gets the least attention and, quite possibly, has the least chance of becoming law in the near future: his proposal to create a universal pre-kindergarten program.
The idea is pretty simple. American children are guaranteed an education when they turn five and enter kindergarten. Before that, they may or may not have access to what we now call "pre-school," which typically depends on the resources (and sometimes the resourcefulness) of their parents.
More affluent families tend to get their kids into decent day cares and nursery schools; less affluent families do not. But poor kids are the ones who need good care the most. Research suggests the first few years and particularly the first two years are critical for the development of intellectual and behavioral skills. Providing low-income kids with access to decent, affordable preschool can help make up for what they're not getting already. It can also help families—not just poor families, but middle-income families—pay for the cost of child care, which can put a real crimp in household budgets.
That's the theory, at least. How does it translate into an actual, real-life policy proposal? We don't know just yet: We'll have to wait for Obama to give the full details. But the plan will probably resemble a recent proposal from the Center for American Progress.
That proposal actually has several components, including financial assistance to help parents pay for infant and toddler care as well as additional investment in the Early Head Start program. But the biggest component is a proposal to partner with states, matching their investments dollar-for-dollar, with a goal of subsidizing preschool based on income. For children in families with household income below twice the poverty line, or about $46,000 for a family of four, preschool would be free, just like public education. (In case you were wondering, by the way, participation in the program would be strictly voluntary. Nobody is mandating that anybody go to preschool.)
The American Progress proposal wouldn't be cheap: It would cost about $10.5 billion a year, according to the paper. That's real money. Then again, plenty of researchers think investments in early childhood pay off—and pay off handsomely—over time. The best-known advocate for this view is James Heckman, the Nobel-winning economist from the University of Chicago. Among those who have made variations on the same argument are Timothy Bartik, of the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed. The common theme in their work is that the right kinds of investments not only reduce poverty; they also improve productivity.
The administration knows all about this research: Obama cited a piece of it during the speech, drawing particular attention to studies of Oklahoma's efforts: "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," he said. "In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own."
The research has its detractors. Among the important questions they ask: Is it possible to replicate the results of model interventions, like the Perry Preschool, on a national scale? (The results of Head Start have been decidedly mixed.) The questions deserve a better answer than I can give right now.
The political prospects aren't as grim as you might think, even in this fiscal environment. The idea of more investment in early childhood has attracted bipartisan support recently, particularly at the state level. "In the past month, a number of GOP governors ... have spoken favorably about the need for greater investments in early childhood education, including Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal," says Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund. "The president's policy proposal is something on which Democrats and Republicans clearly agree and should have a broad and diverse coalition of support behind it."
None of which means a bill will arrive on Obama's desk next week. This kind of project typically takes years of groundwork. But first somebody has to start the conversation, and that's what Obama did tonight.
Direckshun is the ultimate socialist.
This thread nails his ideology. The state must now play an increasing role in raising the child, and get hold of them younger so the parents can't shape their values but the state gets to shape them for the collective good.
Anyhow, this was what the public school system was supposed to provide. It's not like the public school prisons improve upon this ability—at ALL. In fact, they have dumbed more children down. This is just another progressive socialist plot for more collectivism to break down the family more by getting in earlier with those progressive values, while wrecking children more.
Lemme guess Direk: you want yet another government "investment"
In this particular case, there definitely are.
Federal Involvement in education has been such a bang-up success so far why not do more?
Pre-school is available if parents want to send their child to one. Or day cares that make it a point to teach skills. And I didn't read through all the articles, but the part BEP quoted makes no sense because kids don't learn to regulate emotions by going to school, they learn it from their parents from the moment they are born.
Government programs universally have a negative ROI. That's the very definition of a government program.
Even if they all didn't - which they do, but let's assume some didn't - there's simply no way to kill a program once it gets implemented. You cannot judge what works and what doesn't because they all stay regardless of success. I have yet to meet one liberal who says any gov't program failed. (Or needs to be cut, outside of Military)
What age does the government intend to take the kids and put them into the preK programs. I would have to assume this will be a mandate.
War On Pre-School
So this program would be part of the public school system?
Here's an example of the kind of people who will teach kids to control their emotions:
A school goes into lockdown mode over a student carrying a shovel that a teacher asked them to get out of his car for a discussion on WWII. Idaho prompted the school’s “resource officer” to call for the full lockdown. None of the purported adults on campus had the presence of mind to ask the student what was going on. The pro-state media called it a "'military-style shovel' —a cosmetic designation."
So far the news is very good. Obama is trying to significantly increase the number of kids with access to early education. The White House will come up with a dedicated revenue stream that will fund early education projects without adding to the deficit.
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