Universal Pre-K?

I was wondering when I’d start seeing some pushback on the idea that government-funded universal pre-kindergarten education was an important and urgent component of educational reform and had proven benefits. This article by Neil McCluskey at RealClearPolitics is a pretty good start:

Today the unenviable task of opposing publicly funded schooling for the littlest Americans falls to me. Worse, I have to disagree with Peter Salins, whose past work I’ve greatly enjoyed. Yet oppose and disagree I shall, especially with Salins’s basic contention that positive effects of publicly funded, “high-quality preschool” are “empirically validated.”

As the Brookings Institution’s Grover “Russ” Whitehurst has been working feverishly to communicate, we simply do not have a good base of top-flight research — studies in which children are randomly assigned to large preschool programs — on which to conclude that public pre-K works. Most assertions about its effectiveness, such as President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union claim that “every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on,” are based primarily on two programs: Perry Preschool of the 1960s, and Abecedarian of the 1970s. Both treated fewer than 60 children, were very expensive, and were staffed by people highly motivated to prove their programs’ worth.

I think there’s sufficient reason to believe that there are certain populations of kids, especially special needs kids, for whom early intervention is vital. The empirical evidence in support of universal pre-K isn’t nearly as compelling.

Read the whole thing.

26 comments… add one
  • steve

    The support is weak. Not as weak as it is for vouchers, but it is weak.


  • michael reynolds

    By the way, the great go-to excuse for poor school performance has been blown out of the water: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/and-dont-help-your-kids-with-their-homework/358636/

    It seems parental involvement changes just about nothing.

  • jan

    It seems parental involvement changes just about nothing.

    I disagree.

    If ones judges parental involvement according to the extremes — helicopter parenting versus the do-nothing parent — then perhaps there would be little difference. In the case of the former, parents can actually provoke an opposition to learning from the child they want to overly-encourage. And, the latter kind of nonchalance sends a message that learning is just not that important, but simply a rote, mandatory function of growing up. However, for the parent who is able to encourage, without choking off their child’s own inclinations to learn, whetting their appetite on what they might innately have some talent for, then support and parental participation can be helpful.

    Even in the Atlantic article posted, it was found that choosing the right teacher increased learning by as “much as eight points.” This kind of instructor choice would be analogous to choosing the right school as well, giving more credence for enlarging the scope of charter school education, coupled by school vouchers, to assist parents in the availability of such choice. IMO, choice only promotes cooperation. And, cooperation with anything subdues resistance to learning, all the way to participating in new federally promoted policies. Forcing people into compliance does the reverse.

  • Andy

    Let’s call universal pre-K what it really is: Daycare with a really good enrichment program.

  • FWIW, after I retweeted the the articlle, OT’s education guru (Conor Williams) pointed to this response to Whitehurst’s assertions.

  • With regard to the study that Goldstein cites (from the article MR cites), I wonder if there might be a skewing effect by parents involving themselves more in kids who are struggling. I know my parents took a much more hands-on approach with me than they did with my brothers. My grades were not as good. When my grades did get good, they took their hands off.

    Another area of concern is the efficacy of standardized tests. Which is not actually something I am concerned about, but it does seem odd that this is making the rounds among a lot of people that disregard the results of standardized tests generally yet find them important here.

    I am biased here a bit because I do actually attribute the turnaround to direct parental involvement. Specifically, Dad sitting down with me when doing my homework made me do my homework, which I had been spotty on and it turned out was kind of important.

    It’s actually kind of a bummer if this does turn out to be true, because if this worked it would be something that we could tell concerned parents to do that might help. We’re not exactly flush with other solid ideas on how to improve student performance.

  • michael reynolds

    I think if you want to improve kids’ performance you need to start first with just what the hell that means. We’re entering this kind of solipsistic loop where the school work is measured by the test so the school work is narrowed to match the test so scores go up. And actual education? What if that’s not measured by the test?

    Why do we have so much faith in the test? What’s it measuring? Happiness? Hah. Education? No. The ability to derive broader lessons from the curriculum? No. The ability to regurgitate the curriculum? Bingo.

    So now we’re using “test” and “curriculum” as alpha and omega. By the way, are alpha or omega on the curriculum/test? Is that on the approved list of metaphorical commonplaces?

    I would so much rather have my son or daughter encounter a teacher who gave a damn about something, who had genuine passion, almost regardless of topic. If my kids had a teacher who said, you know what, screw the curriculum, I’m going to find the way to make you love Shakespeare or Newton or Hegel, I’d personally pay their salary.

    But thanks to ceaseless politically-motivated attacks by Republicans who give not two shits about education but just want to destroy the teacher’s unions, and thanks to those same unions who protect the worst as well as the best, and to money-obsessed parents whose only idea of education is more of whatever they learned plus a one-way pass to life on a hamster wheel, all discussion of education has ceased to be about education.

    Universal Pre-K, as Andy said, is daycare with a curriculum. Nice for parents, and an excellent way to prepare kids to have their minds narrowed.

    I dislike the pairing of education and career. The STEM folk with their sneers at liberal arts, and the ambitious Harvard-wannabe parents are wrong. Education should be love, not money. It need not be done in time-specific lockstep with everyone else in your age cohort. It’s not meant to be a competition or a race. Education begins at birth and should end when you’re dead. It need not be between the hours of 8 and 3, five days a week at a specific location, and it need not be the same curriculum for everyone, and it should not be judged by tests that do nothing but reward high IQ and self-confidence.

  • Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker

    For what it is worth, and bringing 20 + years of actual teaching experience as a teacher to the table, the difficulty that I have with articles based on research in education is that you can prove that the world is flat using the methods imployed by researchers in education. The other problem that I have notice is that casual observation (and more empirical observation approaches) tend to show that there really aren’t that many stupid programs and curricula out there–everything works sometimes and nothing works all the time. Moreover, different approaches work and don’t work depending on the personnel and students involved.

    As a general rule, I would be inclined to note that our host is spot on–certain populations (mostly poor) are likely to benefit from early intervention, but that this factor does not particularly justify Universal Pre-K (or all day Kindergarten for that matter). What I will note (to close) is that as our societal values continue to gravitate toward “but at least I have enough–and isn’t that what REALLY matters?” based social constructs, the arguments for Universal Pre-k will become easier to make–more poor people=more need for the programs.

  • The next question is… how do you define a good teacher and a bad teacher? (Other than the extremely obvious indications of badness)

  • Cstanley

    I think preK necessarily has become daycare; that ship has sailed, so we might as well put the focus on what the curriculum should be. My intuition is that it should be less academic and more pre-academic…exercises to develop brain skills like working memory, along with plenty of play and socialization. I think we mostly are skipping those foundational skills and then fretting that the kids didn’t get those skills at home. The kids at one end of the Bell curve are ready for what used to be Kindergarten curriculum, but the PreK program should focus more on bringing up the lagging ones, the more precocious kids will likely get what they need elsewhere,

  • In my view universal pre-K is a very bad idea, indeed. What is most necessary, especially for kids whose parents are poor, is a focus on the parents. If they want to spend money on something, they might think about sending peer advisors to work with parents on a regular basis.

    The most urgent need is language development. A major difference between the kids of higher income earners and those of lower income earners is that the kids of higher income earners are surrounded by language. Their parents speak to them more and speak to them more in other than the imperative mood.

  • Cstanley

    What would that look like in practice, Dave, the sending of peer advisors? What kind of program, what kind of training for the advisors, and how would you overcome the likelihood of distrust among the parents?

  • I’d argue that even if it is essentially day care, universal Pre-K is at least arguably justifiable on economic and lifestyle bases. Enabling or and encouraging (well, not discouraging) parents to work.

  • Cstanley

    @Trumwill…I think the best teachers are those who are flexible and creative enough (and observant of the kids’ individual needs) to reach all instead of some. Below that there is a tier of good but not great teachers who can reach most but not all of the kids. For kids who struggle, having good teachers most years and a great teacher one year can make all of the difference.

  • Cstan, I can dig that. And you answered the question I asked, but not the one I meant to ask (which is my bad). I meant… how do we gauge whether a teacher is good? Standardized tests are problematic. Supervisor reviews are problematic. Parental reviews can also be problematic. So… how do we decide? Or more precisely, who or what decides?

    This is why I tend to feel tugged between testing and school choice. The more school choice we have, the emphasis I’d want to place on testing. Testing sets tests up (and by extension, school boards and legislators) as the judge. School choice sets parents (and maybe administrators, depending on the setup) as the judge.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    … The STEM folk with their sneers at liberal arts …

    I am fairly well knowledgeable in both, but few people understand or care about the connection. STEM does not exist without a philosophical basis.

    Math is based upon logic, and anyone familiar with algebra will recognize predicate logic immediately. Metaphysics and epistemology are the foundations for science.

    Philosophy is also the basis for concepts such as beauty, and this leads straight to the arts. Once the STEM mind has acquired these concepts, it may apply them some day. The liberal art mind should also be shown the practical applications for a better appreciation.

    If you are familiar with Hegel, you should learn about Einstein’s theories (Cliff Note version). You might be surprised.

  • CStanley:

    Providence Talks is an example of a program that has the general contours of what I’m talking about. There’s more about it here. More on that “30 Million Word Gap” here.

    My main point is that I don’t think there’s any substitute for the basics for very young children: talk, love, play. Taking children out of the home for longer period at earlier ages just doesn’t strike me as that good an idea.

  • Cstanley

    Isn’t the word gap data based on ages 1-3 though? That precedes the preK period, and the program to increase language exposure seems like it could be an add-on rather than a substitute.

    Besides, if there are intractable reasons that the children aren’t getting those needs met at home, and a need for parents to work, why would it not make sense to incorporate talk, love, and play into the institutional settings as much as possible?

  • Cstanley

    I should add that I’m a little skeptical about the word gap idea anyway because it doesn’t correlate with my experience in childhood or as a parent. Maybe my family is an outlier, but at gut level I suspect the qualitative parts matter more than the quantitative, and I think that would be much more difficult to change.

  • The general definition of pre-K is birth to five.

  • Cstanley

    I always thought it referred to the programs for 4 year olds. So in policy discussions when universal PreK is advocated, are people we talking about putting babies in school like settings?

  • So in policy discussions when universal PreK is advocated, are people we talking about putting babies in school like settings?

    We’d need to see the specific proposal to know for sure. As I say, it usually means birth to 5.

  • Cstanley

    I’ll have to start looking more carefully. The specific notation PreK has become synonymous in my mind with four year old preschool programs because of the lottery funded PreK program in my state and a lot of others. I thought people were advocating that these programs become more closely aligned with the elementary education system, and attendance made mandatory. I am not in favor of that but wouldn’t oppose it as strongly as I would an institutionalized learning program for 1, 2, or 3 year olds.

  • jan

    …everything works sometimes and nothing works all the time. Moreover, different approaches work and don’t work depending on the personnel and students involved.

    IOW, human learning is unpredictable and erratic.

    People are different from each other. They absorb knowledge at different rates, depths, processing it with different individualized intelligences. Howard Gardner, according to his theory of Multiple Intelligences, identified 8 kinds of intelligences. Although he stressed they all worked together in the learning process, most people seem to lean heavily on certain ones more than others, in their integration of knowledge — for instance, visual presentations versus verbal instruction/lectures. That’s why public education is oftentimes so lacking, in that it approaches teaching from a set of standards devised abstractly by the state or fed and geared for the masses, rather than the individual student’s personal learning proclivities, and intellectual skill sets. Consequently, innovative teaching methods frequently can only be derived in smaller enclaves of academics, outside the public education mainstream — from experimental school settings, charter/private schools, to even home schooling.

    In the more affluent school districts, parents are oftentimes able to drive a more conducive, creative curriculum, especially through successful fund-raising efforts. But, in poorer metropolitan areas, public school teaching and learning take back seats to simply stockpiling and managing students’ behavior during the average school day. It’s really not surprising, then, that poor to mediocre school districts have such high drop-out rates and produce low-functioning adults, even when they do graduate high school. It shouldn’t be that way. And, wouldn’t be that way if parents and students had more choices in their education, more input and ways to produce incentives for schools to find better, less rote methods to engage a student’s brain.

    As for Universal-Pre K, I look at it as merely an extension of regimented K-12 education. When children are so young, it seems a waste to narrow their wonder and innocence even earlier, giving way to the wheels of indoctrination and sameness that most public education emphasizes.

  • Many of the comments here are based on people’s intuitions and gut feelings, not empirical evidence.

    It is simply not the case that the only evidence for high returns to pre-K is the Perry and Abecedarian programs. There’s lots of other evidence than that, from many state and local programs. And the Perry and Abecedarian programs are good evidence.

    As for parenting programs, the evidence is more mixed for parenting programs than for pre-K programs. Your gut feeling that parenting programs make more sense is not matched by consistent evidence that parenting programs offer higher benefit-cost ratios than pre-K programs.

    For pre-K, the main program being pushed for now is pre-K at age 4 on a large scale. There are no really serious efforts to dramatically expand high-quality early childhood education at earlier ages than that. There probably should be, but the prospects for such earlier intervention at a high enough quality level and scale to make a big difference is doubtful.

    For universality, the main evidence for broad benefits to many income groups is from the Boston and Tulsa programs, not Perry or Abecedarian.

    For sources for the above assertions, see my blog. Or look at this review by 10 well-known early childhood researchers : http://www.fitchburgstate.edu/uploads/files/CMRC/resources/Evidence_Base_on_Preschool_Education_FINAL.pdf
    Or look at this meta-analysis by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy:

  • Good info, Tim. Thank you.

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