Category Archives: Pre-school

Public preschool programs don’t deliver

One fad in education is to enact a taxpayer-funded preschool program, especially if it’s universal.

The Commonwealth Foundation provides a short list of of reports on the weaknesses of that approach.

Given the financial situation of Kansas, I doubt that we will soon  see the expansion of public preschool programs in the state get much traction.

Universal preschool doesn’t pay

Former Kansas Gov. Kathleeen Sebelius was a big fan of universal preschool, but her departure to Washington, DC, and more importantly, the state’s fiscal situation, have put expansion plans on hold.

That’s a good thing, because universal (as in “taxpayer funded”) preschool is a lousy idea. Late last year, Maryland’s governor proposed a universal preschoool plan. Dan Lips (who, years ago, wrote a report for the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy), recently panned the idea. Here’s a description of the report:

Lips lists three key reasons why Maryland should think twice before adopting universal preschool. First, the projected benefits are based on a few small-scale programs dating back several decades. These previous benefits would likely be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate now. In fact, both Georgia and Oklahoma have instituted programs similar to the one proposed by O’Malley’s administration, and have seen lackluster results. Finally, and perhaps most compelling, the state simply cannot afford universal preschool and should not expend additional funds, as the state already subsidizes preschool for disadvantaged children. Universal preschool would be an expensive and ineffective subsidy for those middle- and upper-income families who likely could already afford to send their children to preschool. The money would be put to better use reforming and strengthening the existing public education system.

It’s been a while since I’ve written on the subject, but I came to many of the same conclusions.

A warning about preschool—from one of its advocates

Several publications ran the most recent Flint Hills op-ed on education. It’s reproduced here.

When the Kansas Legislature meets next year, it will surely talk about more taxpayer money for preschool programs. But the recent words of an advocate of such programs should serve as a caution to Kansans expecting great things from expanding preschool.

In the Fall 2008 edition of Education Next, Craig Ramey, a professor at Georgetown University, argues that the evidence these programs benefit some children is “quite strong.” But his remarks also warn against overreach.

Start with the question of how many children should be included. Some people want to offer taxpayer-funded preschool to all willing comers. The group Pre-K Now, for example, favors pre-K programs “for all children.”

Ramey, on the other hand, says that the benefits of preschool exist “particularly for children from low-resource families.” Who are these families? The ones who have “limited parental education, very low family incomes, and/or parents unable to consistently provide high-quality learning opportunities” for preschool children.

Ramey’s emphasis on the neediest families is echoed by other experts, such as Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. It’s simply a matter of being smart with the public’s money.

Still, that doesn’t deter some people from calling for spending money on everyone, even the wealthy who could pay their own way. In Illinois, for example, Gov. Rod Blagojevich led the push for a “preschool for all” program that includes 3- and 4-year old children.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is known across the country as a champion of spending more on preschool programs. To her credit, she’s been measured in her remarks. In a 2007 appearance before a congressional committee, for example, she called for targeting programs “to low-income communities.” Her budget proposals in Kansas have been for pilot programs.

But will Kansans who favor taxpayer-funded preschool be satisfied with targeted programs? Not necessarily. The group Kansas Action for Children, for example, calls for universal preschool in all but name. It says that “school readiness is lacking in many middle- and working-class homes, just as it is in the homes of low income families.”

Calling for preschool programs to be universal (open to all) is a smart political tactic that increases the flow of money. Bluntly put, public programs that are tailored to the poor don’t have the political base of those that reach everyone. Over time, they don’t expand as rapidly as middle-class entitlements.

Advocates who push for expanding government-sponsored preschool to all can get carried away in playing up its benefits. “There have been several different methods used to calculate benefits—and wildly different returns claimed,” says Ramey. Some estimates claim as much as $16 in benefits for each dollar spent, a claim that is “definitely not realistic” in most situations.

It’s unlikely that the lofty numbers, based on past programs, can be maintained. Ramey says that is “because many of the children being served [in today’s expanded programs] have relatively low levels of risk for school failure.” Compare today’s programs with the Perry Preschool Program, for example. That oft-cited program served children who were all developmentally or cognitively delayed—certainly not representative of children as a whole. Head Start, the single-largest preschool program, has been a disappointment.

New and expanded government programs are sold on promises, but rarely judged on results. In that light, Kansans should be wary of enacting even more government-sponsored preschool programs. If they’re not, they will be left with less money for other needs—and yet another case of the reality of a program not living up to its hype.

Pre-K Recommendations

The Texas Public Policy Foundation offers some recommendations on pre-K programs that might be of interest to Kansans. It comes from a new report published this month. The title, Do Small Kids Need Big Government? (PDF) may strike some observers as unnecessarily antagonistic. But the report offers up a history of pre-K initiatives

Plato’s Republic on the Plains

Plato wanted the children of the ruling class to be parented in common. Today’s would-be education reformers seem to be on the same path, hoping to expand the public school system from 7 year-olds (the current age of mandatory enrollment) down to 6-year olds.

In addition, there’s a great effort, starting from presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on down, to greatly expand the depth and scope of government involvement in early children’s lives. In Kansas, Gov. Sebelius favors expanding preschool services to all children, at least on a voluntary basis.

Some preschool experiments cited by officials such as the Kansas governor take children from as young as infancy and put them into programs funded by taxpayers. Sometimes the money even goes directly into the budgets of government agencies, such as school districts.

There are several problems with this idea, however. The experiments used to justify universal preschool have serious methodological problems that call into question the value of expanding them to the entire population. In addition, the problems with K-12 education don’t occur in the earliest of years, but instead start showing up in middle schools and high schools.

So why the fascination with the early years? One reason may be that it’s easier to expand the current public (government-run) education system than it is to reform it.

As appealing as the logic of universal pre-K may be, there’s a final reason to cast a critical eye on it: putting all or even a majority of very young children into government-run programs threatens the balance of responsibilities among important institutions such as family, religion, business, and government. Some level of government is required, but too much distorts a society.

Read more on this topic in a new report issued by the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy. It’s called (PDF) Plato’s Republic on the Plains: Should Kansas Really Embrace State-Financed Early Childhood Education?

The Existing System is Failing Them … Should We Add More?

The public K-12 system works reasonably well for some children, though not for others.

And the way to respond to that problem is . . . to extend the system to even younger ages?

That’s what the group Kansas Action for Children is advocating.

After noting that 57 Kansas City area schools did not make their proficiency targets under No Child Left Behind, the number of schools in Kansas that failed to make these targets has actually increased, and one in three children in the fourth grade were “below basic” in reading, Shannon Cotsoradis calls for even more schooling.

Whether or not she wants the local school districts that have failed these children to take over the days of three year olds, she doesn’t say. But there will be more tax money involved, if the group has its way.

She writes that her group “filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Kansas Supreme Court a few years ago. In it, we contended ‘that adequate funding and support for early education programs throughout the state, especially high quality pre-kindergarten … should be considered.'”

With the Montoy controversy resolved (for now), and Governor Sebelius returned to office in a convincing factor (Sebelius is an advocate of pre-K education), expect to see this issue make its way to the legislature next year.

Source: Children need to start learning earlier in life, Kansas City Star, December 4, 2006

Universal Preschool?

A Wichita Eagle news article, in an editorialish flavor, reports that universal preschool is a great idea.

There is a growing national push from educators and several state governors to create pre-K classes for all children. Several states have already begun to do it. National research seems to show that quality preschools keep many kids from dropping out of school and falling into crime later in life.

We’ll get to that in a moment. But consider this:

The cost of universal preschool nationwide would be in the tens of billions of dollars. The cost in Kansas would be at least in the tens of millions.

To be sure, it’s being sold as a cost-saving measure. Among the problems with universal preschool: it’s not clear at all that the problem with American education is what happens to students before they enter school. On international tests, they do well. It’s only when we get into the higher grades that Americans fall behind.

Perhaps we ought to first consider fixing the higher-level grades by improving the possibilities of charter schools, which often specialize in at-risk students, who are presumably the same population that advocates of universal preschool have in mind.

Is Pre-K A-OK?

Is Pre-K A-OK?

Governor Sebelius sells her preschool program to business leaders in Wichita.

“We know that children who start school behind generally stay behind. The achievement gap actually starts with a preparation gap. With nearly half of Kansas children arriving at school without the basic skills needed, our schools are in the position of playing “catch up” rather than helping all children build the skills they need to succeed in today’s high-tech economy.”

Catching up can be a problem. Which schools are best at doing that? Will a preschool program have long-term benefits? The problem with American education is not so much performance in the early grades as much as it is in high school. Will a preschool program help? The governor goes for the social-benefits-of-education argument:

If we’re serious about teaching all children, reducing crime and ensuring Kansans are healthy and prosperous, then we have to start early. We have to make certain all children enter school ready to learn and ready to succeed. There are many studies which show quality early education impacts not only school readiness but also health and success later in life.

She’s planning on going outside political channels for funding and help: We’re building partnerships with allies from many sectors — business, early childhood and philanthropy — and I’m thrilled with the early results. For example, business leaders from around the state, including some of the state’s largest employers, have already signed on.

Again, good in theory. Best if carried out in an atmosphere of choice, competition, and outside the usual bureaucratic straightjacket. Still, are we focusing attention at the wrong end of the age spectrum?

The folks at the Reason Foundation (based in California) have some experience with universal preschool. Here’s their take: In California we are a few weeks away from voting on an issues that has been hot in a number of states lately–universal pre-school. The idea of making pre-school available to any family that wants it has a strong visceral appeal for many people. But you won’t be surprised that the details of how a state expands the school system, and the realities of the benefits and costs of universal preschool get murky fast.

Reason has just released a new study [PDF] showing that preschool enrollment has increased from 16 to 66 percent since 1965. And yet this massive growth in preschool attendance and time spent in the classroom has not resulted in increased student achievement, with U.S. test scores rising only very slightly since 1970 when standardized national testing of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders began.

One factor behind preschools’ failure to boost educational outcomes is “fade out.” A 2006 UC Santa Barbara study found preschoolers were more prepared for kindergarten than non-preschoolers, but that those advantages faded away by the third grade and thus preschool had “limited use as a long-term strategy for improving the achievement gap.”

As Lisa Snell puts it, “We’re seeing that early schooling may be immaterial to a child’s later school performance, or that the current school system, as it is structured and functioning, is unable to sustain any early gains that preschoolers might get. There is little factual evidence to backup claims that preschool will boost long-term learning. In fact, we are starting to see some evidence that universal preschool can be detrimental to some kids.”

A study of more than 33,000 children who took part in Quebec’s universal preschool program between 1994 and 2002 found: “Several measures we looked at suggest that children were worse off in the years following the introduction of the universal childcare program. We studied a wide range of measures of child well-being from anxiety and hyperactivity to social and motor skills. For almost every measure, we find that the increased use of childcare was associated with a decrease in their well-being relative to other children.” Like Quebec, Georgia and Oklahoma, the first two states to implement universal preschool, have gotten very little return on their heavy investment in early education.

With universal preschool now firmly in place for years, both states scored below the national average in fourth grade reading on National Assessment of Education Progress tests in 2005. In fact, Georgia and Oklahoma ranked in the nation’s bottom 10 when it came to increasing fourth grade reading scores from 1992 to 2005. Expanding our K-12 system to pre-school is not the way to fix the problems we have with our education system. We need to focus on those existing problems instead.