Maybe Barack Obama should follow the Pope’s example and resign—but then he should run for governor, presumably in Illinois (where he would definitely be an improvement on the last dozen or so).
Because, at least when it comes to education policy, just about everything he wants the federal government to do involves things that can’t be done successfully from Washington but that well-led states can and should do: raise academic standards, evaluate teachers, give kids choices, and more.
His latest passion in this realm is “quality early childhood education for all.” And as post–State of the Union specifics seep from the White House, we see more clearly what he has in mind: a multi-pronged endeavor, including home visits by nurses, programs for poor kids from birth to age three (“Early Head Start”), more Head Start (mostly for three-year-olds), lots more state-sponsored preschool for four-year-olds (subsidized up to twice the poverty line), and full-day Kindergarten for all.
All are plausible undertakings by states. Only one, however, could be satisfactorily carried out by Uncle Sam: a thorough and much-needed makeover of the five-decade-old Head Start program. But that isn’t likely to happen. The retrograde Head Start lobby is too strong, and the program’s iconic status means it’s easy to resist fundamental changes in it.
Yet Head Start is by far the largest extant preschool program in the land—serving about a million kids, well targeted at low-income families, and costing about $10,000 per child. The problem is that every program evaluation over many years has reached the same sorry conclusion: Head Start is fine and dandy as a provider of child care, social services, decent food, and some dental and health care, but it’s a total washout in terms of school readiness. Whatever limited cognitive gains its participants show after their year in the program vanish soon after (or even before) they enter school.
Yes, we can blame elementary schools for failing to capture those gains, but as Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution points out, the main culprit is Head Start itself, which doesn’t try very hard for cognitive gains and which has defenders who stoutly resist even viewing it as an education program. (That’s why it’s housed in the Department of Health and Human Services.)
To its credit, the Obama Administration has pushed to reform Head Start (as did several prior presidents), but with very limited success. The fact is that big federal programs, once entrenched, are exceptionally hard to change. Head Start should be turned over to the states—where, with governors like Barack Obama, it might be merged into states’ own efforts to provide preschooling to those who need it.
But states face mighty challenges of their own on this front. Besides cost, two are paramount.
First, the early-childhood-education crowd cannot agree on what “quality” means in preschool education. What it should mean is evidence of school readiness and a preschool operator’s success in getting kids to meet curricular standards that mesh with the state’s Kindergarten standards. What “quality” usually ends up being defined as, however—and the White House documents half-slip into this trap—is a bunch of “inputs” related to class size, room size, teacher credentials and such.
Second, the politically appealing impulse to promise “universal” preschool education is in direct conflict with who actually needs it and isn’t getting it today. The overwhelming majority of American four-year-olds already participate in some form of preschool—and more than 40 percent enjoy the publicly financed kind. Universalizing access to public preschool, besides being very expensive for taxpayers, amounts to a huge windfall for public schools (and their teacher unions), as well as for middle class families and communities that have already found ways of obtaining it for their kids. And it’s invariably a low-intensity program that doesn’t deliver the degree of help and duration that might put the neediest youngsters onto a more level education playing field. (Essentially all the evidence of lasting gains—and long-term savings—from preschool comes from a few very pricey and intensive boutique-style programs targeted on small numbers of exceptionally disadvantaged children.)
These are tough nuts for states to crack, but the federal government can resolve neither. In a time of tight budgets and staggering debt, Uncle Sam can’t do much on the cost front, either.
Well-led states can make some headway. Oklahoma (mentioned by the president) hasn’t done badly. Neither has Florida, despite its risky embrace of “universalism”. Washington can surely jawbone—Arne Duncan is far better at this than Kathleen Sebelius—and may deploy some modest incentive dollars for states to match. But if Mr. Obama really wants to make a difference on the preschool front, he should first clean up the Head Start mess, then go back to Illinois and straighten out his own state’s policies and programs.
A version of this article also appeared on The Corner.