Charles Murray has an op-ed on Bloomberg View today about the evidence, or lack thereof, underlying President Obama’s push for nationwide pre-school education. He examines both the best randomized assessments of top-quality pre-K education (the Abecedarian project in North Carolina and the Perry project in Michigan) and the federal government’s recent comprehensive report on the longstanding national Head Start program. Murray’s assessment is bleak:
The take-away from the story of early childhood education is that the very best programs probably do a modest amount of good in the long run, while the early education program that can feasibly be deployed on a national scale, Head Start, has never proved long-term results in half a century of existence. In the most rigorous evaluation ever conducted, Head Start doesn’t show results that persist even until the third grade.
Let me rephrase this more starkly: As of 2013, no one knows how to use government programs to provide large numbers of small children who are not flourishing with what they need. It’s not a matter of money. We just don’t know how.
NR’s editors commented on this topic over the weekend, reaching a pretty similar conclusion:
There are two questions that need to be answered here. One is whether early-education programs work at all. The answer for programs such as Head Start is clearly “no.” The answer for more intensive programs along the lines of the Abecedarian Project is “probably not.” The second question is whether the $23,000 per student per year spent on Head Start or the much larger sum that would be required for a more intensive program might be put to some better use. The answer to that question is almost certainly “yes.”
Rich Lowry also raised the same topic in his column on Tuesday, explaining that President Obama’s delusions regarding the evidence about early-childhood education reflect the man’s “ideological commitment to an expansive government and an unshakable faith in its ability, given enough funding and the right rules and regulations, to overcome any obstacle.”
Murray, as one might expect, explains that the solution to the problems Head Start et al. are meant to solve has to come from elsewhere:
Is there anything that money can buy for these children? I am sure that Head Start buys some of them a few hours a day in a safer, warmer and more nurturing environment than the one they have at home. Whenever that’s true, I don’t care about long-term outcomes. Accomplishing just that much is a good in itself. But how often is it true? To what extent does Head Start systematically fail to serve the children who need those few hours of refuge the most?
Asking those questions forces us to confront a reality that politicians and other opinion leaders have ducked for decades: America has far too many children born to men and women who do not provide safe, warm and nurturing environments for their offspring — not because there’s no money to be found for food, clothing and shelter, but because they are not committed to fulfilling the obligations that child-bearing brings with it.
This head-in-the-sand attitude has to change. If we don’t know how to substitute for absent, uncaring or incompetent parenting with outside interventions, then we have to think about how we increase the odds that children are born to present, caring and competent parents.
He admits we don’t quite know how to do that, either — but as is widely acknowledged now on the right, we do know quite well that more government spending on the youngest children is not a way to avoid the issue.