The Corner

The Early-Ed Big Lie

President Obama is repeating questionable statistics in support of his bid to expand the government’s monopoly on education back to the womb.

He asserts in his speech on education today at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that “$1 of early education leads to $10 in saved social services.” What he seems to be referring to is one analysis of the outcome from a small-scale, intensive family-intervention program called the Chicago Child Parent Center Program more than 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with the Chicago Child Parent Center Program and the associated analyses that make their use as evidence in support of large-scale government early-education programs problematic:

– More than early ed — parenting: As the name of the program implies, the Chicago Child Parent Center Program involved extensive interventions with parents that involved “a multifaceted parent program that includes participating in activities in the parent resource room with other parents (e.g., educational workshops, reading groups,and craft projects), volunteering in the classroom, attending school events and field trips, and completing high school; outreach activities including resource mobilization, home visitation, and enrollment of children.”

– More than early ed — tutoring: The intervention continued through 3rd grade for some students, and involved tutoring, speech therapy, and medical services that are not a part of current preschool proposals and would dramatically raise the costs and difficulties of expanding such a program state-wide.

– Weak research design and suspect results: The research design simply “matched” children whose parents chose to participate in the CPC program with those who did not. It’s not a random-assignment study, which means that subtle differences between the two groups — which can easily go undetected by survey responses, income data, and other rough measures — might explain all differences between the two populations. There is absolutely no way to determine if the program had an impact or the families who participated were different from those who did not participate.

In contrast to the evidence for early education, which is weak and often unrelated to large-scale proposals, school choice has been tested extensively with random-assignment studies. Nine out of ten of these studies find statistically significant improvement in academic achievement for at least one subgroup.

Obama should follow the scientific evidence on what works in education; school choice, not “early education.”

 — Adam Schaeffer is a policy analyst for the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.

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