Pre-K Programs Deserve Skeptical Look

It’s time for North Carolina and federal leaders to develop healthy skepticism about large-scale government-run pre-kindergarten education in schools – because there’s mounting evidence that the programs do little or no good.

Dianna Lightfoot had been set to become director of childhood development and early education in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. But liberals had a conniption fit when it turned out that she headed an organization that critiqued such programs. They bellowed: It’s a conflict of interest! The resulting hue-and-cry prompted her to bow out.

Shortly thereafter, in his State of the Union address President Obama called for the federal government to provide even more funds for such programs — to include all children. Various liberal talking heads have been chattering about how this would benefit the nation.


But there’s a lot of evidence the biggest preschool program of all has failed. The final report on the biggest and most rigorous study of federal Head Start classes was published in December. Issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the report, Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study Final Report, concluded that the $180 billion preschool program is a failure. A flop. A dud.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a child psychologist writing on the liberal Brookings Institution’s website, explained why this report is so powerful. It’s a massive, long-term project that began under the Clinton administration. The study looked at two groups of children: students who won a lottery to get into Head Start, and students who did not and thus serve as a control group. In other words, he wrote, the study “is a randomized controlled trial, the gold-standard for evaluating the effectiveness of social and health programs.”

This report moreover comes from the federal bureaucracy, meaning that many of those involved are motivated to keep the Head Start program going and to keep the Washington money flowing. So when they say the program doesn’t work, that’s powerful testimony.

Here’s how Whitehurst sums up the findings:

There is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start.  Further, children attending Head Start remain far behind academically once they are in elementary school.  Head Start does not improve the school readiness of children from low-income families.

Let me put it my own, crude way: Head Start has no lasting benefits for students. None. Nada. Zilch. Zippo.

But could state-run pre-K programs work better than the federal Head Start? That seems very unlikely.

Whitehurst noted that “Head Start spends about twice as much per child per year as states ($8K per child per year for Head Start vs. $4K for state pre-K). And Head Start includes many program components that are advocated by early childhood experts such as health, nutrition, and parental involvement that are much less prevalent in state pre-K. If a year of Head Start does not improve achievement in elementary school, should we assume that a year of state pre-K does?”

Now the best answer is “no.”  Previously, the research on state-run programs has been at best inconclusive, so the new HHS report must take precedence. And as for other research, some evaluations of schools’ early education programs may involve obvious conflicts of interest.

In North Carolina evaluation of pre-K programs is done by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) at UNC-Chapel Hill. But the Institute is heavily invested in early childhood education. It proclaims that “for the past 45 years, our research, outreach, technical assistance, and service have shaped how the nation cares for and educates young children.”  It would be hard for any organization to take an objective look at an idea that underlies its very existence.

The Institute is staffed by more than 300 people and had an FY2012 budget of $32 million – 70 percent of it directly or indirectly from state or federal taxpayers. FPG even runs its own child care center, which is involved in its research. Asking the Institute to judge the worth of early child education is like asking the North Carolina Beef Council to evaluate the benefits of eating steaks and hamburgers.

In light of this, North Carolina needs to objectively evaluate the pre-K programs that the education bureaucracy has offered, and make the appropriate changes.  Our U.S. Senators and Representatives must be equally clear-minded when and if the gigantic Obama preschool plan arrives at Capitol Hill. We can no longer afford to spend billions on programs that can’t demonstrate they really help children. Failures only waste time, money and talent that are needed elsewhere.

Jim Tynen is Communications Director at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh. 

This article was posted in Education by Jim Tynen on February 19, 2013 at 2:51 PM.

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Comments on this article

  • 1

    Andrew Henson
    Andrew Henson Feb 20, 2013 at 7:29


    Good article. Let’s try and dig into those details a little more at the state level with an administrative focus. Effectiveness is a decent question, but no sane-minded politician is going to shut down Pre-K, even if you had a smoking gun showing it had zilch effect. Look at how the public schools are trying to suck in the Pre-K industry into the school system to grow their numbers. Evaluate the effects that would have on private childcare providers. Childcare works a lot like insurance, there are more and less expensive clients. Infants are the costliest and 4-year olds are the most lucrative. If you take the 4-year olds out of the system, childcare costs on the remaining children will go up. Push the envelop for a strengthened private childcare industry. Incrementalism, my friend.

  • 2

    Ed Page
    Ed Page Feb 20, 2013 at 8:29

    We’ve said for a long time that the amount spent on education does not correlate with its success, pointing to high per student expenditures in DC and other failing school systems. Let’s not make the inverse assumption, e.g. that because state preK spends less than the federal Head Start program means it is less effective. For all we know, our state program efficiently and effectively uses those dollars in ways the feds do not. (Unlikely, I know). Let’s take this study as a basis for a more thorough examination of our own programs.

  • 3

    Jay Feb 20, 2013 at 9:02

    With regard to Diana Lightfoots political appointment; I see a big difference between “she headed an organization that critiqued such programs” and what actually happened, “That she founded an organization to work against public or institutionalized child care”.

  • 4

    Times Feb 20, 2013 at 21:53

    I am a conservative Republican. That said, I never let my ideology get in the way of the evidence. I always thought that was a mainstay of liberalism, personally. But on this topic, it seems that some of our purported think tanks have dug in their tar heels and only mention the evidence and arguments that support their stance, in Michael Moore fashion. The inferences between the rightly critiqued federal Head Start programs and state programs are a stretch, to say the least.

    This article has one particularly glaring omission of evidence on the topic of Pre-K in North Carolina (NCPK, formerly More at Four), being the Duke study most recently updated a year ago. As you will see, its methodology and data model tightly controls for errors, and its conclusions fall directly against your hastily established “best answer”, finding significantly higher return on investment for education dollars due to Pre-K programs: “North Carolina third-graders have higher standardized reading and math scores and lower special education placement rates in those counties that had received more funding for Smart Start and More at Four when those children were younger, Duke University researchers have found.”


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