What do I think of Obama’s universal pre-school proposal?

by on February 13, 2013 at 10:43 am in Current Affairs, Education | Permalink

Of course there are no significant details yet, but here are a few points.

1. The evidence that this can be done effectively in a scalable manner is basically zero.  Aren’t massive policies (possibly universal?) supposed to be based on evidence?  (How about running a large-scale RCT first, a’la the Rand health insurance experiment?  And by the way, here is a quick look at the evidence we have on pre-school, and here, not nearly skeptical enough in my view.  And think in terms of lasting results, not getting kids to read nine months earlier, etc.  You can find evidence for persistent math gains in Tulsa, OK, but no CBA.)

2. That doesn’t mean we should do nothing.

3. Let’s say we have “the political will” to do something effective (debatable, of course).  Is adding on another layer of education, and building that up more or less from scratch in many cases, better than fixing the often quite broken systems we have now?  I know well all the claims about “needing to get kids early,” but is current kindergarten so late in life?  Why not have much better kindergartens and first and second grade experiences in the ailing school districts?  Or is the claim that by kindergarten “it is too late,” yet a well-executed government early education could fix the relevant problems if applied at ages three to four?  Would such a claim mean that we are currently writing off many millions of American children, as it stands now?

4. This is what federalism is for.  Let’s have an experiment emanating from the state and/or local level.

5. What should we infer from the fact that no such truly broad-based state-level experiment has happened yet?  (Georgia and Oklahoma have come closest.)  That the states are lacking in vision, relative to the Presidency?  Or that a workable version of the idea is hard to come up with, execute, and sell to voters?

6. In Finland government education doesn’t really touch the kids until they are six years old.  Don’t they have a very good system?  Some call it the world’s best.  Maybe the early years are very important, but perhaps pre-schooling is not the key missing piece of the puzzle.  (NB: See the comments for dissenting views on Finland.)

Addendum: Here are good comments from Reihan.  See also this Brookings study: “This thin empirical gruel will not satisfy policymakers who want to practice evidence-based education.”

Peter the Shark February 14, 2013 at 6:02 am

Until 2009 New Hampshire didn’t even have state funded kindergarten, never mind pre-school. Yet New Hampshire’s PISA scores are consistently among the highest in the US. Maybe the education system is not Finland’s secret. There are plenty of more obvious ways NH and Finland are similar.

Really Curious February 14, 2013 at 8:00 am
JL February 14, 2013 at 9:08 am

Aside from concerns about how reliable results from small, never-replicated experimental studies are, people like James Heckman (who seems to think that the Perry preschool project is the greatest study ever) don’t seem to worry that even if something like the Perry program worked in the 1960s, there’s no guarantee that it would work now. Poverty in the 1960s was qualitatively different from today’s poverty, and these days even the poorest parents tend to have a lot more formal education than they had half a century ago.

JonMiller February 14, 2013 at 9:06 pm

I think that good nutrition for children of the poor could be a clear advantage of pre-school.

Floccina February 15, 2013 at 2:28 pm

I see Universal pre-k as an attempt to improve the poor. I think that should not be a government function.

Also if you provide government paid for pre-k, do you compensate middle and upper class people who do not send their children to Pre-k? Or do you force them to pay for and other rich and middle class peoplewho choose to send their children? Better to admit you goal is to improve the poor and pre-k school freely available to the poor only. To get philosophical suppose some poor want to let their children enjoy their early years without school, is it right for us to attempt to change their values through pre-k?

Also I think it was Jimmie Carters secretary of education who said 6 was to young to send boys to school these perk proposals are as evidence-less as that was.

Floccina February 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm
Babirussa de Sulawesi February 24, 2013 at 4:08 am

Very good post

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