One of the biggest surprises of Tuesday’s state of the union address was President Obama’s proposal for making pre-school available to all American children. His base is delighted: universal pre-school has been high on the liberal wish list for many decades. But the reality of deficits as far as the eye can see and the mediocre condition of American schools requires some hard-nosed questions about what the tens of billions required for universal pre-school programs will actually accomplish.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of universal pre-school. Pre-school, or nursery school as it used to be called, is now a necessity of middle class life, a way of gently introducing children to the discipline and structure of formal education, of teaching social skills, of expanding a child’s social network, not to mention of providing childcare for working parents. Offering those benefits to children whose parents cannot afford the often daunting tuition seems like a no-brainer for anyone committed to reducing poverty and inequality. After all, cognitive research supports common sense intuition that the early years are of vital importance in a child’s development. For many, high quality universal pre-school programs in places like France and Sweden have always served as a model of governmental commitment to equality and basic fairness.
But two words in particular should dampen some of this pre-school enthusiasm: Head Start.
Launched in the mid 1960’s as part of the War on Poverty, Head Start was based on precisely the idea that government schooling could compensate poor children for their disadvantage. It hasn’t worked out that way. More than a hundred and fifty billion dollars and almost 50 years later, the program is a dud. A report fromOctober 2012 is only the most recent of a long line of studies showing fleeting cognitive gains from Head Start. The rigorously-designed study adds that there is little difference in the domains of “social-emotional, health, and parenting practices” between 3rd graders who attended a Head Start program and those who did not.
The most severe critics object that Head Start has turned into nothing more than a massive jobs program for adults. That may be too cynical, but Head Start does provide a cautionary lesson for the president. It’s almost impossible to satisfactorily reform, not to mention undo, a large government program that employs tens of thousands of people, especially one promising to improve the lives of poor children….
The other reason for the mantra “pre-school works” is that it often does – for a year or two. Many programs, including some Head Start classes, do improve kids’ cognitive skills and school readiness. But by third grade, the positive effects fade away. The stark truth is that pre-school can’t “work “unless kindergarten, first and second grade and all of the other grades do. And so far they don’t.