Pre-K ‘Deniers’? Actually There’s a Debate, No Thanks to Academics

by Jason Richwine

Russ Whitehurst of Brookings has emerged as the nation’s leading critic of universal preschool. His latest piece is an informative and dispassionate look at some of the most frequently cited preschool evaluations. I can quibble here and there with the value he assigns to certain studies, but his conclusion is spot-on:

“The best available evidence raises serious doubts that a large public investment in the expansion of pre-k for four-year-olds will have the long-term effects that advocates tout.”

 Whitehurst cited a particularly extreme example of their dismissiveness that I hadn’t heard before: During a congressional hearing on universal preschool last month, Democratic representative George Miller of California said that “because President Obama has suggested this program, we’re developing a class of sort of like, you know, childcare deniers, early learning deniers. The evidence is compelling.”

It would be easy to dismiss the “denier” charge as just over-the-top rhetoric we often hear from politicians. But it’s more troubling than the typical outburst: For one thing, calling someone a “denier” isn’t just staking out a strong position on one side or the other of an issue. It’s an attempt to shut down debate. Those who level the “denier” charge are not responding constructively to their opponents’ arguments. They are unilaterally declaring the debate over and done with. Everyone can go home. No further discussion will be permitted.

And it’s just as troubling to think that Representative Miller really is unaware that a legitimate debate exists about public pre-K. If so, it’s a sign experts are failing to engage constructively with each other rather than just work in their own echo chambers.

When academics cloister themselves within a specialty or sub-specialty that interests them, “groupthink” sometimes emerges. In the case of preschool, the field attracts those who are inclined to support some form of early education, while those who are skeptical tend to focus on other topics. The result is a false consensus that only Whitehurst and a handful of others have been working to dispel.

The problem of groupthink runs deep in academia. For example, economists rarely publish in sociologists’ journals, and vice versa, despite quite a bit of overlap in the subjects they study.

When I dug into the school finance literature a few years ago, I was surprised to discover so many education scholars who feel that spending more money is the key to improving public education. Like many people with an economics background, I think the school finance advocates are seriously mistaken. Of course, they probably think the same thing about economists, so there’s a chance here for a robust debate. But no debate can happen when one side is calling the other “deniers.”