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.