Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 2, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

PRE-K....Education policy, which rarely produces unalloyed success stories, "must be a discouraging field to work in," I said yesterday. Maybe so, but Ezra Klein reminds us that "The big bright spot, it should be said, is universal pre-k, which has not only shown itself to have massive educational benefits, but to be tremendously cost-effective as well."

That's true. You have to do it right, and you have to keep at it (the effects are small if you offer a year of pre-k and then nothing more), but it's one of the few things that has proven benefits. That said, this is a good excuse to link in more detail to an article a few days ago by Chicago Tribune science writer Jeremy Manier about the different approaches to pre-k from each of the presidential candidates:

As decades of academic studies on brain development start to land in the real world, experts are divided on whether to focus new funding on infants and toddlers, or conventional preschool. Many now think some policies popular with politicians and the public, such as universal prekindergarten, may fail to reach at-risk kids at a young enough age.

....Chicago has become a national proving ground for schooling during the first three years, and is home to prominent advocates such as Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago, who said reaching kids before preschool could offer the best long-term economic return.

"Even at age 4 or 5 you may be starting too late," Heckman said. "I wouldn't say it's hopeless to help kids after those early years, but it's extremely expensive."

Backers of universal preschool say the evidence for even earlier intervention is not yet solid and offering conventional prekindergarten to everyone would help build popular support for early education.

Although each Democratic hopeful is proposing dramatic increases in funding for Early Head Start, the federal program aimed at children younger than 3, they disagree on the importance of universal preschool.

Sen. Hillary Clinton's proposals focus on extending universal prekindergarten by requiring that states offer preschool to all 4-year-olds to receive certain federal funds. Sen. Barack Obama would direct more money to the years before preschool and quadruple the size of Early Head Start, which now serves just 3 percent of eligible children. Obama describes his plan as "a preschool agenda that begins at birth."

Officials for Sen. John McCain said the research has convinced the Republican nominee of the value of investing in early development, but he has not yet proposed changes to existing policies.

Read the whole thing for more. Bottom line: Obama and Clinton both take the issue seriously but have different priorities, different approaches, and different ideas about how best to get political support for more widespread pre-k programs. John McCain, on the other hand, basically couldn't care less.

Kevin Drum 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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Comments

I think that pre-K is helpful to kids, but if you look at international comparisons, I think it's middle school where the US system falls down. The numbers are competitive for 4th graders, but for 8th graders European and Japanese children do a lot better than American children.

And that seems to line up with my memory, and complaints I hear from other, much younger people: we basically treat school as a place to warehouse middle school kids, and teach them more of the same things they already learned.

Posted by: Joe Buck on May 2, 2008 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

This is blatantly unfair to Senator McCain. I'm sure he has the capacity to care a little less. We have not yet tapped the vast reserves of John McCain's capacity for uncaring aloofness when it comes to complex policy.

Posted by: drjimcooper on May 2, 2008 at 12:34 PM | PERMALINK

The evidence shows large gains by really poor kids in really good child care. As the kids get richer, or as the child care gets averager, the benefits go down. Middle class kids have a home life plenty stimulating enough to grow their little synapses as fast as their genes can make them.

This suggests Obama has the better policy position (spend the money where it will have an effect: quadruple head start and start it at birth), but Clinton has the better political position. If it is preschool for 4 year olds run by public schools, it will become just another grade, and people will pay for public schools. Obama's plan directs it at poor kids, and that seems like a welfare program, which people won't support.

This is why Obama should be president and Clinton majority leader.

Posted by: anandine on May 2, 2008 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

What exactly does "Even at age 4 or 5 you may be starting too late...." mean? Is this referring to children who, previous to formal schooling, have no reading/writing exposure? What component of the schooling must happen prior to 4 years?

Posted by: jhm on May 2, 2008 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter McCain: Trillions for Iraq but not a dime for the children.

The mind reels at the notion of any sane person voting for McCain. On second thought, I guess specifying 'sane' rules out a good chunk of the US population anyway. Depressing, that. (YodaSpeak)

Posted by: Buford on May 2, 2008 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

I disagree with anandine's position that Obama's plan is better. What is the point of sending an economically distressed child to school at 3 years of age versus 4 years of age if there is nothing done to address the root cause poor performance in school in later years - which is lack of parental participation.

What we should be doing is educating the poorer parents - if not a ged then at least some schooling in what tools they can use to encourage their children to learn.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 2, 2008 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Check out "The Truth vs Barack Obama"
http://savagepolitics.com/?p=317

I saw this today, and HAD to share it with everyone. It is just a brilliantly researched and written list of inconsistencies with several of Obama's stories. I think it should be done for ALL three candidates, but I guess this is a good way to start at finally looking at the candidates with some honesty.

Posted by: Phillip Federer on May 2, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sN_nQOHj__s

This would be headlines today if our media was not so racist.

Posted by: Cornbread the Ghetto Legend on May 2, 2008 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

If I may channel Marty DiBergi for a moment...

If everyone goes to school for two years before 1st grade, why not call the actual first year of school "1st grade"?

Posted by: Grumpy on May 2, 2008 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

jhm: What component of the schooling must happen prior to 4 years?

Talking to the kid. By the age of 3, a kid of rich parents has heard 30 million more words from its parents than a kid of poor parents. It's not just the number of words but exposure to concepts, such as which way up to hold a book and that there is a correlation between squiggles and sounds, and talking about the color of the sky and where rain comes from. By the time really poor kids get to preschool, they're too far behind to catch up.

Posted by: anandine on May 2, 2008 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Obviously more must be done for prenatal - 3 for kids in economic and cultural poverty. Not the schools, though.

I've been an evaluator / researcher / policy guy in early childhood education since the late-80s. Quality Pre-K is very effective for kids in poverty. It's been studied to death, so hopefully no need to elaborate. One point, though: Kids with the greatest needs experience the highest rates of growth. It's a little different for the middle class kids - but it's not been studied than much, really. Politically, though, it's a dead-end not to include all. There is an obvious contradiction where, on the one hand, Pre-K has been an especially effective compensatory mechanism for kids in poverty; on the other hand, if all get it, where is the compensatory mechanism?

Posted by: maxgowan on May 2, 2008 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

optical weenie: What is the point of sending an economically distressed child to school at 3 years of age versus 4 years of age if there is nothing done to address the root cause poor performance in school in later years - which is lack of parental participation.

What we should be doing is educating the poorer parents - if not a ged then at least some schooling in what tools they can use to encourage their children to learn.

The reasons Obama's plan is better than Clinton's are (1) it targets poor kids, and (2) it starts at birth. All of the other stuff you said is true. Parents are the biggest part of school success. So I don't think we should do only Obama's plan; we should do it instead of Clinton's and in addition to a bunch of other stuff.

Sometimes I think people should have to take a communtity college course in child development before being allowed to have kids.

Posted by: anandine on May 2, 2008 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Anadine is exactly right. The benefits are for very poor children who get very good (very expensive!) childcare. But with universal preschool, we won't get that. Instead, we'll get mediocre universal daycare- fine for the middle-class kids whose parents otherwise would have paid for it, but not enough to make a difference for the poor kids who really need it.

I guess it's politically infeasible, but what we need is a targeted, intensive program for poor kids. If the middle-class parents want to put their kids in daycare or preschool, fine, but we shouldn't have to pay for it.

Posted by: Cardinal Fang on May 2, 2008 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

Massive educational benefits? What????
The last I read about this, tests showed that all benefits had disappeared by teh time students with and without pre-k reached third grade. The only additional "benefit" was that those with pre-k tended to have better self-esteem about their work (meaning they felt good about their "D"s, unlike those without pre-k) and that they were less likely to drop out of high school. And while on the surface I might agree that there is some benefit to not dropping out of high school (I can only think it's because they've been just that much more pre-programmed to see their roles in life as attending school --- of questionable use to people who are about to leave it), but the funds for this are enormous and could certainly be used in ways instead direted at high school students --- rewarding them financially for studying math, for instance and offering programs transitioning to work, further study, or college.

Now if you want to talk about a program that might make some sense along similar lines, universal access to childcare makes sense. Also expensive, but it encourages young parents to get training and get non dead-end jobs, while their children are cared for, instead of encouraging them to accept their position as a stay-at-home mom with no prospects.

Posted by: catherineD on May 2, 2008 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

I attended a town hall meeting sponsored by my Virginia state senator and delegate. They said that it has been proven that in general, minorities that attended pre-k do better on third grade standardized reading tests than their peers. They also said state authorities look at third grade reading scores to determine how many prisons to build in the state in the next 15-20 years.

Posted by: pol on May 2, 2008 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

I suppose this is just another earnest but ultimately futile effort to close the black-white IQ/academic achievement gap. My prediction is that after all is said and done blacks will still have IQs that are about 1 Standard Deviation lower than whites and still have academic achievement that is about 1 SD less than whites. I am a Republican who is not too concerned about widespread diversity in academic achievement that of course conforms to widespread differences in SES/race/ethnicity since it merely reflects widespread differences in innate IQ due to widespread differences in genes. I love celebrating ethnic diversity! It makes our country so much more entertaining. I think that before wasting hundreds of billions on a nationwide implementation of this probable boondogle we instead should first try it out in one or two cities. Also we should try spending an equivalent amount on gifted education. If America spent more money on the high IQ students (who are the ones who will be the future innovators, scientists, and entrepreneurs) instead of wasting so much money and attention on low IQ kids who are too stupid to ever amount to anything (except menial workers, welfare queens and criminals) perhaps then our great nation could compete better against the like of China, Korea, Japan, India, and Europe!

Posted by: rifraf on May 2, 2008 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

Head Start is, almost without question, one of the most successful Federal programs started in the last 40 years. This, naturally, explains why so many members of the GOP want to cancel it: if your central idea is that government doesn't work, you certainly can't have a government program which clearly *does* work.

Of course, the GOP *likes* stupid people. After all, they're so much easier to manipulate.

-Z

Posted by: Zorro on May 2, 2008 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

Quality Pre-K does not need to be hideously expensive - we do UPK in New York State for about $4,000 per pupil.

And then there are the benefits side. As the Council of Economic Advisors said in 1998, "It is difficult to imagine a more cost-effective intervention for a community to invest in, than in quality preschool."

The number bear this out. The best and earliest studies came out of the Perry High/Scope Project of Ypsilanti, Michigan. By 1986 they had calculated that for every dollar invested in quality Pre-K, the community would realize a savings of six dollars, by the age of 19. So that $4K that New York invests, will yield $24,000 in savings within the next 15 years. More saving accrue later on as well.

There are immediate benefits to schools, in the way of fewer grade retentions, special education referrals and placements, remedial services, etc. All of those are expensive.

Posted by: maxgowan on May 2, 2008 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

The massive education results dissappear by the time the kids get to 4th grade.

Just look at their 4th grade NAEP reading scores...

By Income (School Lunch Eligibility)
Eligible for school lunch
1998 Oklahoma 208 ( 1.7)
2002 Oklahoma 203 ( 1.4)
2003 Oklahoma 204 ( 1.6)
2005 Oklahoma 205 ( 1.2)
2007 Oklahoma 209 ( 1.3)
Not eligible for school lunch
1998 Oklahoma 231 ( 1.2)
2002 Oklahoma 227 ( 1.2)
2003 Oklahoma 227 ( 1.6)
2005 Oklahoma 225 ( 1.2)
2007 Oklahoma 227 ( 1.4)

By Race
White
1992 1 Oklahoma 223 ( 1.0)
1998 Oklahoma 225 ( 1.2)
2002 Oklahoma 220 ( 1.0)
2003 Oklahoma 220 ( 1.3)
2005 Oklahoma 219 ( 1.3)
2007 Oklahoma 223 ( 1.1)
Black
1992 1 Oklahoma 201 ( 1.9)
1998 Oklahoma 195 ( 4.8)
2002 Oklahoma 188 ( 3.7)
2003 Oklahoma 195 ( 2.5)
2005 Oklahoma 197 ( 2.8)
2007 Oklahoma 204 ( 2.2)
Hispanic
1992 1 Oklahoma 207 ( 3.3)
1998 Oklahoma 204 ( 3.9)
2002 Oklahoma 197 ( 2.8)
2003 Oklahoma 200 ( 3.0)
2005 Oklahoma 204 ( 3.2)
2007 Oklahoma 198 ( 3.9)

All students
1992 1 Oklahoma 220 ( 0.9)
1998 Oklahoma 219 ( 1.2)
2002 Oklahoma 213 ( 1.2)
2003 Oklahoma 214 ( 1.2)
2005 Oklahoma 214 ( 1.1)
2007 Oklahoma 217 ( 1.1)

As the poster above said, the gains are gone by the time they get to 3rd grade.

Posted by: rory on May 2, 2008 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

NEAP is suspect data and always has been. Hi/Scope has seen differences reappear in eighth grade.

Pre-K is hardly an innoculation, btw. It's not like, "You just attended a high quality Pre-K. See you with your honors diploma in 13 years!" It doesn't work that way. If it is followed by an inferior elementary instructional program, take a guess as to what will happen to the gains. I have no idea how good or bad Oklahoma's elementary education system is.

In a longitudinal study I co-authored, eleven years ago, we say gains of 19 percentile points remaining with students, at the end of third grade, compared to no formal Pre-K experiences. (Every child has some kind of "Pre-K" experience.

There are also gains not necessarily captured by standardized achievement tests - like motivation to attend higher education, motivation not to get arrested; motivation to not get pregnant. The research on this is quite clear.

Posted by: maxgowan on May 2, 2008 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

What exactly does "Even at age 4 or 5 you may be starting too late...." mean? Is this referring to children who, previous to formal schooling, have no reading/writing exposure? What component of the schooling must happen prior to 4 years? Posted by: jhm

Learning to read and write, doing simple addition and subtraction, and starting a second language. Most children are capable of this by age 3 and all should be ready by age 4.

Posted by: Miss Information on May 2, 2008 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

Optical Weenie Wrote: "What we should be doing is educating the poorer parents - if not a ged then at least some schooling in what tools they can use to encourage their children to learn."

But see, this is exactly what Early Head Start is about. Many EHS programs have GED or family literacy components. All EHS programs have a parent education component focused on increasing a parent's understanding of child development and increasing parent involvement.

To clarify, Obama supports quadrupling the Early Head Start budget (which serves pregnant women and children from birth to 3). He has not suggested quadrupling the entire Head Start budget.

Posted by: on May 2, 2008 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK

Pre-K is hardly an innoculation, btw. It's not like, "You just attended a high quality Pre-K. See you with your honors diploma in 13 years!" It doesn't work that way. If it is followed by an inferior elementary instructional program, take a guess as to what will happen to the gains. I have no idea how good or bad Oklahoma's elementary education system is.

The question is what is the most efficient investment of resources to get the highest gain. NAEP might be flawed, but that can be said about any form of measurement.

I would love for there to be universal Pre-K, but it won't solve the achievement gap. As I read the pre-K study, it actually resulted in a greater black white achievement gap.

So far the single most successful program studied (Direct Instruction), is still shunned by the education establishment even though Project Follow Through in the 70's showed it to be by far the most successful pedagogy.

Why waste money on universal pre-k if constructivism and whole language is going to wipe out any gains made?

Posted by: rory on May 2, 2008 at 9:15 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, we see no Black-White or Hispanic-White gaps in Pre-K or generally in Kindergarten as well. We see large gender gaps, but that's developmental to an extent. When you break down gender-ethnic, we see boys of color behind as much as one year, by the end of K, compared to White and Hispanic girls - these are kids who attended quality Pre-K. But if you just disaggregate by race/ethnicity, then you see no gaps at this age. And you consistently see kids with the greatest needs experiencing the highest rate of growth.

Speaking of developmental, at ages 3 - 4, the main domains are "academic" (concepts matter most at this age; building the infrastructure, so to speak; more on this shortly), language (obviously close to cognition at these ages); but gross and fine motor skills and social-emotional intelligences count just as much - and in many cases (since one size does not fit all), are even more important than the "academics" the non-experts keep pushing into early childhood education.

That's a whole 'nother entry. But in the war between the Skill-and-Drill crowd and the developmentalists, the developmentalists have, yet again, won. It's just that the other side is data-proof.

In the large inner-city school district that I work in, and collaborate with a local hospital/university on evaluation, by 1998 we had collected about 1,100 quality research papers on early childhood education. We did a meta-analysis on a bunch of them, which concluded pre-k (somewhat controlling for quality), reduced retentions (don't get me started) by around 33%, and special education placements by 21%. Those are enormous savings.

Oh, and hey, metrics matter: The piss-feable excuses for NEAP are just that, feeble.

Extra credit: Guess the error rates are, at the individual level, for even a good standardized achievement test?

Posted by: maxgowan on May 2, 2008 at 10:07 PM | PERMALINK

The overwhelming majority of the many Black teachers and administrators with whom I have worked despise ebonics more than any white guy could possibly do. They see it for what it is more than most white people can. Inner city teachers have more genuine "conservatism" - small "c" - than the right-wing crackpots who would like to destroy public schooling. Waddya think our positions are on legalizing cocaine, the importance of the family, with two parents; education of parents (mother's education accounts for 82% of the variance of SES), etc.?

Posted by: maxgowan on May 3, 2008 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK
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