The Home Front

‘Preschool for All’ Not Beneficial, but Head Start Is

Really it is, but I’ll get to that.

If you haven’t heard about the president’s “Preschool for All” plan, chances are you will soon hear a lot about it. The program will most likely be a core element of campaign speeches next year since it sounds like a good idea — the DNC and independent voters should eat it up. Why shouldn’t the middle class have their children’s pre-K costs covered?

Well, how about because it will not make enough of an impact to be a good use of taxpayer funds?

What is the logic behind pre-K for all? Why the “for all?” Why would a publicly-funded preschool program have to be universal as President Obama and New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio advocate? It sure would be a lot more expensive that way. For instance, this 2012 University of Texas study found that “preschools may reduce inequalities in early academic achievement by providing children from disadvantaged families with higher-quality learning environments than they would otherwise receive.”

But “advantaged” families — not so much. As a Slate article by Melinda Wenner Moyer on the UT study succinctly put it: “If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need preschool.” Indeed, claims of high return on investment from pre-K spending by economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman refer to expensive, narrowly targeted programs aimed at very poor families.

The end result seems to be that middle-class families simply switch their children from private to public preschools with no effect on test scores.  About the same number of children are enrolled in preschool, but less is spent on child care. (And yes, it’s one more feather in the cap of public educators.)

But what about continuing to provide programs for low-income kids? We’ve all heard that Head Start doesn’t really make a difference, right? Well . . .

If you take a bath on Friday, and get dirty on Saturday, this means the bath was ineffective. The preceding, clearly flawed, logic sums up the misguided hysteria over an [October 2012] HHS report showing that the positive effects of Head Start fade out by third grade. The early childhood field has grappled with the “fade-out effect” multiple times before. We seem to have no trouble understanding why people lose ground after weight loss, addiction recovery, or treatment for depression because we know intuitively that an intensive intervention represents an extraordinary divergence from the natural course of human difficulty. And so it is with children growing up in poverty.

But, you say, everyone knows that a bath’s effects are supposed to be temporary. The very promise of Head Start is that it provides a long-lasting benefit to disadvantaged children. Plus, baths don’t cost taxpayers 8 billion dollars every year. If Head Start can’t protect children against the “dirt” they may encounter once they enter the public school system, then why continue to pay for it, right?

The author goes on to offer very detailed responses to several objections raised about Head Start. You be the judge. I would be interested in a rebuttal, and an answer to this question: Wouldn’t there be better Head Start outcomes if the quality of teaching remained as intensive throughout the upper grades, instead of the poor quality that our public schools — especially for the economically disadvantaged – often have?

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