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Perspectives in Education- Part 2

Preschool and the Head Start Program

Expansion of early childhood education, or Pre-K programs, is being touted by Obama as the panacea to cure America’s educational ills. In essence, there are basically four general types of early childhood education: federally subsidized, or Head Start, state-run preschool (some universal, some targeted), private preschool, and no preschool. What Obama essentially advocating, although he is woefully short on specifics, is expansion of the federal role in preschool education possibly through block grants to states, direct funding, or some combination of both.

By and large, the federal and state-run programs are taxpayer subsidized and targeted to a specific population, mainly families below a certain household income level. Because of the differing distribution of wealth among ethnic groups in general, these criteria target minority children- African-Americans and Hispanics primarily. In certain states with large Native American populations like Alaska, these groups are also brought into the fold. Some of the resistance to these programs was alluded to in part 1- although the costs are distributed throughout society (that is, taxes pay for the programs), the benefits are concentrated (mainly minority beneficiaries). When this economic dynamic is in play, there will be resistance. What can overcome the resistance is proof that the costs justify the benefits and here, the evidence falls short except in a few instances.

Starting with Head Start, this began as a pilot program in 1965 as part of Johnson’s War on Poverty and soon spread and expanded although its efficacy was never definitively studied until considerably later. For example, Congress mandated a study by HHS during the Clinton administration as part of funding the program and that report was finally released in 2008- more than twelve years after it was mandated. That study showed what most studies from private organizations and colleges found earlier: that Head Start is not the “success” many believe and most importantly, it is hardly the example to be used if contemplating a preschool program. If anything, it illustrates how terrible an actor the federal government is in educational policy and funding generally.

The primary purpose of Head Start was to bridge the gap in public educational outcomes between low-income families and the population at large. No one denies the higher one’s educational level, the greater the benefit to society. This is shown in a variety of ways: higher incomes, lower chances of teen pregnancy, lower incarceration rates, etc. Today, Head Start programs have over 1 million preschool participants. The federal government spends $7.6 billion a year on the program although $2 billion of that figure does not even reach the classroom and is used instead for administrative costs and studies. Naturally, the number of students enrolled varies from state to state based on income levels and we naturally see more participants in low income states than in the more affluent states.

As the HHS and other studies indicate, most of the promises of Head Start have failed to be realized. The educational industry will offer many solutions which stress greater commitment and money resources. However, as a starting point, it is these advocates who are partly to blame for Head Start’s less than auspicious results. What may have started as a program to bridge academic differences in school has transformed into a massive social welfare program. For example, Head Start mandates child nutrition standards, health and dental screenings, and social skill enhancement. If the purpose is to enhance academic abilities, they have drifted from that goal into becoming a de facto minimal educator, feeder, doctor, dentist and social worker. Not that anything is particularly wrong with having good health, good manners, and full stomach, but when an allegedly academic-enhancement program concentrates more on these items, it ceases to be an academic-enhancement program. In effect, Head Start has evolved into federal government-run day care. If that is the real goal, stop the pretense and say so. No one does because they realize it will simply create greater resistance to the program.

What most studies indicate is that by the end of the first grade, a child who attended Head Start shows no difference than a child who attended no preschool program whatsoever in academic performance, health, or social skills. That is very damaging news for the program’s effectiveness. Perhaps the only positive out of these studies, including the HHS one, is that kindergarten teachers report that their students appear more ready for kindergarten than their stay-at-home peers and that the parents of these students are more involved in their child’s education. Most discouraging is the fact that all these studies indicate that for Head Start students, it has a net NEGATIVE impact on their math skills. Even Head Start students who showed enhanced skills over non-participants in any preschool programs lose those advantages by the end of third grade so that the Head Start student is indistinguishable from any other student on a variety of academic, social, and health metrics. Even if we can say Head Start helps perhaps 50% of participants,the results clearly DO NOT justify the costs. At best, we can conclude that Head Start has been a 50-year experiment that failed. Unfortunately, over the years the federal government has directed more than $150 billion towards Head Start. Even more unfortunate is that outside some conservative websites and fewer academic journals, the mass media has ignored these negative reports including the HHS study. When they are reported (a rarity), they are buried on page 46 of the newspapers.

Obama specifically likes to point to the universal preschool initiatives in Georgia and Oklahoma. Florida is the only other state that has such programs. Most other states have ad hoc programs usually targeted at “at risk” populations. Even here, the results are not greatly encouraging, but certainly infinitely better than Head Start programs. More than 28% of all 4-year-old children in the United States are enrolled in some state-run preschool program. In Oklahoma, which began universal preschool in 1998, the enrollment figure for that age group is 88%. While Obama and company cite these programs and advocate them, he is actually indicting public education- especially the federal government’s role in it- since in both Oklahoma and Georgia and even Florida, the programs are a joint public-private program. For example, Oklahoma regularly enlists the aid of churches in the state to help in their enrollment efforts while Georgia basically gives parents a $4,500 voucher (of course, they don’t call it that) towards their child’s preschool education. The moral of the story is that if you are going to establish a program, then it is best to enlist the help of the private sector if you have any chance of success. In the case of Oklahoma, the private sector has certainly been successful in enrolling children.

But what of the success of the programs themselves? Do they lead to lower teenage pregnancy rates, higher graduation rates and higher academic success? Oklahoma is the most studied since it is the oldest. Regarding teenage pregnancy rates, for example, little has changed in that area. Although the rates have gone down nationally since 1998, Oklahoma’s rate has remained stagnant. Since Georgia’s program is only 8 years old and children start preschool at 4, in longitudinal studies those children are now 12, certainly not the picture we have of a pregnant teenager. But guess what? Georgia’s teenage pregnancy rate has not stagnated but DROPPED. This clearly indicates that preschool education most likely has no effect on teenage pregnancy rates. Regarding high school graduation rates, in Oklahoma the rate of graduation has increased slightly, but not significantly and not certainly to a degree where one can claim success on this metric and as a justification for it.

As far as future academic success, again the results are less than exemplary. For example, on the NEAP reading test, Oklahoma students are below the national average (they slightly above average before 1998) while Georgia students have, in 2011, reached the national average although they were near the average before 2005. Ironically, the results for African-American fourth graders are an indictment of universal preschool even if we were to make it semi-universal. In Oklahoma and Georgia, African-American fourth graders who attended the state-run preschool programs scored lower on the NEAP than their non-participant counterparts and in Oklahoma, African-American students actually scored above the national average before universal preschool was instituted.

In New Jersey, there is a semi-universal preschool program that targets so-called Abbott districts, named after a state Supreme Court case that mandates increased state funding to school districts with high poverty rates. Here, studies by private entities and the state show more encouraging signs. On fourth and fifth grade NJASK tests (the state equivalent of the NEAP), students who attended preschool in these districts actually perform considerably better than their non-preschool peers and significantly so. There are three main proposed reasons for this. First, the preschool programs and curriculum are better coordinated with that of the public school system in general. This allows for a seamless entry into primary school education. The loss of advantages by the end of first grade shown in Head Start are not evident here. Of course, these preschools offer nutrition, health and social skill enhancement programs, BUT they do not dominate the day. They are side benefits of a more academically-motivated program. Second, unlike Oklahoma, Georgia and certainly Head Start, the school day is longer and the school year is longer. Third, there are major requirements to be a preschool teacher in New Jersey. Although I will discuss teacher certification in a later entry and the fact it really has little difference on academic outcomes, that strain of evidence runs opposite when it comes to preschool teachers. Most likely this is because the children are more formative than their older counterparts where teacher knowledge of their subject area rather than certification takes on greater importance.

Preschool advocates will generally begin to discuss the subject defensively. The first thing one will normally hear is that there are not enough studies. How many studies are necessary before they wave the white flag? Arguing over statistical models is not a solution. Some advocates correctly note that “academic drift-” the move towards social skill enhancement, health and nutrition- has taken away from the academic mission. They are partially correct, but they are also the ones who advocated for these things in the first place.

Others have proposed that the restrictions on enrollment be loosened in order to accept more students. This is nothing short of statistical sleight-of-hand. If you introduce more students who would more likely be better academic achievers for whatever reason among low performers, you will obviously increase the statistical positive outcomes. If I have a classroom of 10 students with an average score of 10 (gross score=100), then throw five students in there with a gross score of 100 (20 per student), my new gross score is 200 for an average of 13.3. I can then declare that I improved academic outcome, on a statistical basis. But, did I really help my original ten students? This is nothing more than statistical “busing.”

Finally, advocates will argue for higher pay for preschool teachers which seems to be the opening mantra of the educational establishment. It is true that the average preschool teacher in a public school setting is underpaid compared to a kindergarten teacher for example. In some school districts, custodians receive a larger pay check. And for private preschool teachers, they make less than their public counterparts often with no or expensive benefits. But, this fact alone becomes the major indictment against increasing teacher pay as the solution. Even though private preschool teachers earn considerably less than their public counterparts, children who attended private public schools perform consistently better on most academic metrics, social skills, and get better teacher assessments when they later attend public schools. The reason has little to do with teacher pay, although one could argue that if one is to establish universal public preschool, teachers should be paid at least the same as a kindergarten teacher.

With private schools, the major difference is parental involvement in the outcome of that child’s education. And the reasons for this are simple. First, parents who send their children to private preschool do so out of their own pockets. They have a tangible, vested interest in the outcome. If they do not like the results, they have a choice, the second reason for the success of private preschools.

Hence, if we accept the fact that preschool education is, on balance, a plus, then public policy should be to enhance competition in the private sector not by encouraging universal public preschool education. Quebec did exactly this with disastrous consequences where the public preschools simply squeezed out the perfectly fine, fully functional private preschools. With competition comes lower prices; that is an economic fact. Public preschool should be competing with a variety of affordable private preschools in any geographic location, not deterred.

Even still, there will be a certain percentage of the population that can still not afford a private preschool. It is these households that should be eligible for government subsidies through vouchers whose amounts are determined on a sliding scale income basis. Close to 80% of all children enrolled in preschool actually attend private schools so there are certainly options out there for low income households now. The majority of private preschools are faith-based which may be another reason their students perform better later on since it strengthens the sense of community within those students.

The solutions are simple: choice, competition, financial help to facilitate choice, and academic emphasis.

Next: Part 3- an annotated history of the federal government’s involvement in education.

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