The Pre-K Problem: A Great Investment or Passing the Buck?

It was a remarkable thing, perhaps historic: three of the four essays on the New York Times op-ed page of January 30 were devoted to one subject.  “Pre-K, The Great Debate,” was the headline over Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s essay. “How to Get More Early Bloomers” was the contribution from University of Virginia Professors Daniel Willingham and David Grissmer.  And, finally, Gail Collins, another Times columnist, weighed in with “How Preschool Got Hot.”

Collins summed it up best:  “All of a sudden, early childhood education is really, really popular. Everybody’s favorite.”

Indeed, the Kristof headline is not quite accurate: there hasn’t been much of a debate so far.  “Research shows,” he wrote, quoting President Obama in his State of the Union address, “that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education.”  Republican House Speaker John Boehner even applauded that line, Kristof pointed out.  “Aside from apple pie,” he continued, “preschool may…be the only issue on which voters agree,” referring to polls showing that big majorities of Republicans and Democrats “support expansion of prekindergarten.”  In the Empire State, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Gotham’s new mayor Bill de Blasio have competing pre-K proposals.   And though there is meant to be a high wall between the Times editorial and news sections, the January 30 op-ed extravaganza was followed, six days later, by a front page Times news story, headlined, “Preschool Push Moving Ahead in Many States” – proof of what the two columnists had said on the 30th.   Reporters Richard Perez-Pena and Motoko Rich reported that “Preschool is having its moment, as a favored cause for politicians and interest groups who ordinarily have trouble agreeing on the time of day.”

The universal support of universal pre-K is oddly reminiscent of 2001, when a bi-partisan Congress passed the No Child Left Behind bill  (384 to 45 in the House and 91–8 in the Senate) promising universal accountability. The same has happened with class size reduction, which is a perennial crowd favorite. As in the case of these other two major reform agendas, it is surely legitimate to ask for the research base prior to embracing these programs. In the case of class size, for example, despite research that does show positive impact – especially for young deeply disadvantaged students, there is also strong research suggesting that there are stronger ways of improving student outcomes (such as getting more effective teachers into the classroom).  (As Matt Chingos pointed out in a 2011 report for the Center for American Progress, the “enormously popular” and enormously expensive CSR programs have produced “surprisingly little high-quality research… on the effects of class size on student achievement.”) The record on No Child Left Behind – and more recently the Race to the Top initiative is still being written, but once again, what was striking was that the research seems to come after, not before.

Using these recent examples as cautionary tales, what should we be talking about when we talk about “universal pre-K”?

1.  Look Closely at the Research

Nick Kristof loaded up his column with familiar memes from the universal pre-K narrative, including this:  “it works,” referring to “the stunning success” of two programs from the 60s and 70s – the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs, which, he continues, showed that low-income kids who were in them “were more likely to graduate from high school and get a job and less likely to end up on welfare.”

Willingham and Grissmer, however, are skeptical of the research, which they don’t find as numerous or compelling as many pre-K proponents suggest.  Abecedarian and Perry, they argue, “were expensive, intensive programs,” not about to be duplicated by large bureaucracies.  Grover Whitehurst, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and former director of the Head Start Quality Research Center, calls Abecedarian and Perry “boutique programs from 40-50 years ago that served a couple of hundred children.”

Another favorite early education program, Head Start, a creator of which died on February 2, was launched in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and is another early education initiative that enjoys great public support.  However, researchers are not all strong enthusiasts. W. Steven Barnet, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, writing in IdeaLab, concludes that, after “weighing all of the evidence and not just that cited by partisans on one side or the other, the most accurate conclusion is that Head Start produces modest benefits including some long-term gains for children.”

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and one of the most published researchers on the topic, writes in recent letter to the editor of the Times that, “Publicly funded preschool, currently offered through Head Start, state programs or child care subsidies, returns modest benefits for low-income children.”

Others are still less persuaded. Whitehurst calls the appeal to research “thoroughly misleading” and says that many preschool-for-all supporters “are way out in front of what the evidence says.”  And even in a recent Tennessee study, “conducted by a stellar team of researchers at Vanderbilt,” with a randomized trial that involved 3,000 four-year-olds, Whitehurst says the findings are “devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-k programs.”

2. Focus policy proposals on “what works”

This mixed reviews of the country’s major Pre-K initiatives doesn’t mean we don’t have strong hunches on how to improve them.

Willingham and Grissmer, in their Times op-ed, point out that we know that  good curriculums, implemented with ample planning, and taught by good teachers will work.   But they also note that “we know little” about how those factors “interact with sleep, nutrition, parenting and other aspects of domestic life.”

Barnet believes that Head Start “could produce larger gains if the program was better focused and made other improvements….  Unshackled from unrealistic mission expansion and agency micromanagement, and refocused on education as job one, Head Start could actually produce the results that both its critics and defenders seek.”

Pianta also thinks “we have strong science supporting how to teach children to read and converse, learn science and math, and acquire social and self-management skills.”  The problem is, he suggests, that we don’t do a very good job of matching that “strong science” to the programs that we implement.

These are not incidental challenges, especially considering that the American school system has wrestled with the problem of communicating and implementing the “what works” message in its K-12 system for some time.

3. Don’t Conceal the True Costs

The challenge is that with all the attention to financing, discussion of the designs of Pre-K programs has been lacking.  Mssrs. Willingham and Grissmer begin their Times op-ed piece by pointing out that when Mayor de Blasio went to Albany to talk to legislators and the Governor, “the discussion reportedly focused on funding, not on whether or not preschool would actually help children.”

But even the discussion of costs has been less than clear. It took John King, Commissioner of Education in New York State to point out that instead of costing $300 million a year, as Governor Cuomo proposed, doing universal pre-k right would cost $1.6 billion a year.

Such truth-telling is not easy.

Cost is not an incidental question, but in light of the research about what does and doesn’t work, the funding risks are huge.  “We have to get this right,” Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, told the Times. “We do not need another lousy service for poor kids that we feel good about but that doesn’t actually accomplish anything.”

The point was brought home with a thud by University of California at Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller last week in a Washington Post op-ed that argued that “as the pre-K bandwagon gains steam, it’s careering into hazardous territory.”  In fact, wrote Fuller, whose 2007 book, Standardized Childhood, examined the national movement to rationalize and centralize the operation of highly local preschools, “an unbounded entitlement would not reduce children’s early gaps in learning….  It could even exacerbate disparities.”

As Russ Whitehurst says, facts are stubborn things.  The question is, will we have the opportunity to engage in “the great debate” that is necessary to give those facts their due.

-Peter Meyer

This first appeared on the blog of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College