The Corner

Pre-School Talk

As with all of tonight’s policy proposals, we wonks will be scouring the fine print in the days to come to determine their merits. When it comes to expanding pre-school programs, the details matter a lot. The major federal effort in pre-K — the 45 year-old Head Start program — has been found again and again and again to have few long-term benefits for participants. Any gains fade out by the third grade. A reasonable question is whether that’s the fault of Head Start or the fault of our dysfunctional public-education system. But there’s little reason for confidence that new federal spending in pre-K, if it looks anything like Head Start, will lead to better results for poor and middle-class children.

What would be refreshing would be an effort to target scarce resources on the neediest kids; to ensure that programs work to build vocabulary through a knowledge-based curriculum, as E. D. Hirsch Jr. has argued for years; and to encourage private and for-profit pre-K providers to be part of the solution. That would be “smarter,” rather than “bigger,” government. We’ll see.

— Michael Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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