Charles Murray on the feasibility and potential benefits of President Obama’s call for universal prekindergarten (via Bloomberg):
The take-away from the story of early childhood education is that the very best programs probably do a modest amount of good in the long run, while the early education program that can feasibly be deployed on a national scale, Head Start, has never proved long-term results in half a century of existence. In the most rigorous evaluation ever conducted, Head Start doesn’t show results that persist even until the third grade.
Let me rephrase this more starkly: As of 2013, no one knows how to use government programs to provide large numbers of small children who are not flourishing with what they need. It’s not a matter of money. We just don’t know how.
Is there anything that money can buy for these children? I am sure that Head Start buys some of them a few hours a day in a safer, warmer and more nurturing environment than the one they have at home. Whenever that’s true, I don’t care about long-term outcomes. Accomplishing just that much is a good in itself. But how often is it true? To what extent does Head Start systematically fail to serve the children who need those few hours of refuge the most?
Asking those questions forces us to confront a reality that politicians and other opinion leaders have ducked for decades: America has far too many children born to men and women who do not provide safe, warm and nurturing environments for their offspring — not because there’s no money to be found for food, clothing and shelter, but because they are not committed to fulfilling the obligations that child-bearing brings with it.
This head-in-the-sand attitude has to change. If we don’t know how to substitute for absent, uncaring or incompetent parenting with outside interventions, then we have to think about how we increase the odds that children are born to present, caring and competent parents.
So a targeted, not universal, pre-K plan for poor kids might do some good, that’s my takeaway. No guarantees, as Murray explains. Certainly the data has yet to catch up to the expansive $100 billion plan from the Center for American Progress. But as Murray suggests at the end of this piece, there’s more to this story than money ….