Obama’s universal pre-k isn’t universal

President Obama’s pledged “to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America” in the State of the Union speech. His “early learning” plan doesn’t do that, which is a good thing. Obama is focusing on disadvantaged children who may not be learning enough at home to be ready for school.

In short, universal pre-k isn’t universal, writes Garance Franke-Ruta in The Atlantic. Sharing costs with the states, the president would try to improve preschool quality and expand access for four-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. (That tops out at $46,100 for a family of four.) He’d also expand Early Head Start for low-income children from birth through age 3.

Forty-two percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in taxpayer-funded, center-based preschool.

Obama also proposes expanding home visits to high-risk families — young, single mothers — by nurses and social workers. Visits by public health nurses appear to lower the risk of child abuse and neglect — and increase the use of birth control.

Early education helps disadvantaged children — for awhile, writes Emily Richmond, noting the president’s call for states to add full-day kindergarten. She researched that issue in 2007.

The greatest benefits to full-day kindergarten seemed to be for minority children and those growing up in poverty, who were more likely to otherwise arrive unprepared for first grade. But the gains trickled off unless those full-day kindergarten students continued to receive the tailored instructional programs and services they needed as they advanced into the higher grades.

Here’s how I summed the data at the time: “Full-day kindergarten may be a springboard to academic success, but it’s apparently of little use if students are diving into an empty pool.”

Except for a few boutique programs, preschool gains don’t last.  By third grade, Head Start graduates do no better  in school or in social and emotional skills than similar kids who weren’t in the program, according to a federal study that was not released for four years.

Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst asks if we can be “hard-headed” about funding preschool.

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?

Universal pre-k in Georgia produced very slight gains (for the neediest children) at high cost, Whitehurst writes. A Texas pre-k program produced slightly better gains for low-income children.

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  1. Ah, but you see, you are laboring under the impression that the purpose of Head Start, et al, is to teach these disadvantaged kids something so they can start school on an equal footing with advantaged kids. Silly old bear – the unstated but real purpose is to set up a jobs program for politically connected unions and their lackeys. There, I said it. What else could explain the irrationality of continually throwing good money after bad?

  2. In many posts, we hear the claim that the gains of Head Start disappear by around 3rd grade. The question is: Why? Many conservatives argue that this is proof that the program is a failure. However, it could be that the program was a success, but that other factors erase the gains in later grades. If I could make an analogy… it’s like you have a car with zero gas and missing all its spark plugs… you fill the gas tank, and the car doesn’t run… do you declare that gas wasn’t necessary?

    • We don’t “hear the claim” that Head Start’s a failure, we get solid academic work that makes any other interpretation unsupportable. And, that result’s been repeated over the decades; any time Head Start gets a critical look it comes up short.

      Analogize all you want but at the end of the day if you don’t have some means of tying your analysis to the results then you’re just making excuses which is, of course, all you’re doing. Sorry, but your desperate desire to find some value in Head Start, and the self-serving excuses you dream up in that pursuit, are a lousy excuse for success and a lousy reason to spend public money.

      If you want to understand why Head Start’s a failure, and of course you don’t, you have to look no farther then the district model for public education which also has no connection between funding and organizational success.

      Succeed or fail the money continues to show up so why exert all sorts of unnecessary effort to succeed? Fulfilling the letter of law, regardless of spirit of the law, becomes all anyone can expect of Head Start and even that low standard’s not always met.

    • Your analogy is off. Try this: A car with a half tank of gas is running poorly, so you top it off with high-octane fuel and add fuel cleaner to the tank. The car runs well for a hundred miles and then begins to run poorly again. A reasonable person might conclude that the high-octane gas and the fuel cleaner were not the problem and that the money was misspent. But I don’t disagree with you–the question remains, why won’t the car run well, and why do the gains disappear.

      • Norm… yes, that could also be the case. Maybe Head Start really is not effective and should be scrapped, I don’t have the answer to that. All I was pointing out was that the mere fact that the gains diminish in later grades is not, alone, sufficient to say that Head Start is a failure. Perhaps Head Start is ineffective, or perhaps its effective, but there are other factors that counteract the gains.

  3. Stacy in NJ says:

    Most of the preschools in my area of Jersey are church affiliated and cost a pitance. Annual tuition is something like $2,000 -$3,000 for the 4 year old class. Of course, what it isn’t is full time day care. Pre-k’s typically only offer 12-15 hours of total class time per week. These programs are frequently less about educational opporutnity and more about free day care.

    Why not offer vouchers to disadvantaged families? Set a minimum standard (must be a licensed pre-k) and set the voucher value at the cost of an averge pre-k geographically. This would be far less than the $10,000 Obama is suggesting.

    He wants “quality” pre-k for all. What we’ll get is an expensive government program minus the quality – like every other government program. The federal government should really just stick to doing what it does best – writing checks. Everything that requires management capabilities is above its capacity.

    • Annual tuition is $2,000-$3,000, but is that the true cost? My understanding is that many, if not most, of the religiously affiliated schools heavily subsidize the education because it is part of their mission. This is especially true for Catholic parochial schools… I don’t think a long-term scalable model is to say that teachers should be willing to see their job as a “religious” calling so that they don’t need to be paid in order to keep the costs down.

      • Private preschool (not religious) in expensive Montgomery county, MD cost me about $3000 for a full day 4-yr old class in 2007. I don’t know the cost now but I doubt it is $10,000.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        During the time my own sons attended pre-k, I worked as a volunteer at the same Presbyterian school as a teacher’s helper.

        No, they’re not subsidized. Frequently the pre-k’s are the only source of real income the church has. Many old churches – the ones that typically offer pre-k – are Episcopalian or Presbyterian with diminishing or non-existent parishioners. The churches frequently have owned their properties for many decades and enjoy tax advantages and low facility costs. The teachers typically work part-time. It’s easy to keep costs down when not supporting a public sector bureaucracy.

        In my area of the world, Catholic churches and schools have been reluctant and very slow to offer pre-k. Many still don’t.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          I just want it add, there is no significant advantage to children attending preschool.

          The preschools that most middle class and affluent kids attend are not in the least academic. The kids basically learn to take care of their personal belongings (hang coats up on hooks, put snow boots in cubbies), play with each other without fighting both indoors and out, listen when the teacher reads and conducts circle time, and sing and dance a little for the Christmas and Easter show. Some other basic crafty skills are taught (using scissors, coloring), but other than the alphabet and basic counting, most preschools don’t teach academic skills. Montessori school are the exception here.

          Unless it’s a dedicated DI school like Engelmann’s, the idea that preschool will ameliorate the effects of poverty in a few hours per week is just crazy talk.

          • The ed world might possibly tolerate Montessori, although I don’t think it likely, because Montessori has its own certification for teachers. The best hope for low-SES kids is probably Englemann’s DI, which was developed for that population (like Montessori) and which has been successful with it (Baltimore) but which is anathema to the ed world because it’s the opposite of the favored theories; no progressive basis, no “kids when learn when ready”, no groupwork, no discovery, no Writers’ Workshop, just real content, explicitly taught in a scripted fashion and lots of repetition and immediate feedback. It’s designed for effectiveness and EFFICIENCY; a concept with which the ed world has no apparent acquaintance, but which is critical for kids who start with big deficiencies. Every minute counts.

    • Generally speaking Head Starts are also only a few hour a day (it depends on the local grant). They do pay teachers benefits and full time wages (again it varies by the local Head Start in my area the Head Start teachers employed by the local school districts get the same pay and benefits as K-12 teachers and the Head Start teachers that are not part of school districts get lower wages and less generous benefits).
      Head Start classrooms also provide snacks and meals.

  4. Some, if not most, of the pre-ks that are located in churches (like Stacy, I’ve seen mostly main-line Protestant, one Greek Orthodox, but can’t remember any Catholic) are not even run by the church but simply rent space. Since the space isn’t otherwise used, it’s a good deal for the church. That’s true of the one my grandkids attend and of the one another grandkid will attend next year. The cost is nowhere near the cost of Head Start, which is outrageous. I’m with Lee; it’s a jobs program for adults and a not-very-useful daycare (since it’s not full-day). It should have been scrapped decades ago.

    • It was also true of all but one of the ones my kids attended and the exception rented space in a local Hebrew school.

  5. Any government preschool will be staffed by the same kinds of idiots that work in the post-office. Besides, low-SES parents want a free babysitter, not a head-start in education for their kids. The Obama Project of 2012-2016 is going to be very expensive for nothing.

  6. Have there been any preschool follow-up studies where most of the kids in the elementary classes had been to preschool? Is it possible that preschool gains are lost because the kids are then thrown into public schools, where the actual policy (dating back to the 1950’s, at least) is “no child getting ahead”.