Former Obama White House economist Austan Goolsebee writes a Wall Street Journal op-ed supportive of his old boss’s universal $75 billion pre-K plan. And as Goolsbee presents it, the case for the Obama plan is beyond reasoned dispute:
If we are committed to evidence, though, there’s one area where we ought to be able to agree: early-childhood education. Investments in pre-kindergarten education have among the highest payoffs of any government policy, and whatever budget agreement emerges should restore the country’s long-standing commitment to early education.
Of course, Goolsbee mentions the famous Perry Preschool Project study, which only proves that a large amount of money spent on a small groups of kids in the 1960s can show results. But as Charles Murray has said, “Small scale experimental efforts staffed by highly motivated people show effects. When they are subject to well-designed large-scale replications, those promising signs attenuate and often evaporate altogether.”
Not to be a downer or anything, but Goolsbee apparently is unaware of an August 2013 study looking at Tennessee’s voluntary full-day, pre-k program for four‐year‐olds from low-income families. Since 2009, a team of Vanderbilt researchers has been studying what’s in effect been a randomized trial, comparing the kids who won a lottery to enter the program against those who didn’t win.
A recent report from the Vandy group looks at how those pre-schoolers were doing in first grade. The results are not encouraging. Russ Whitehurst of Brookings points out that “the group that experienced the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group, even though ¾ of the children in the control group had no experience as four-year-olds in a center-based early childhood program.” Likewise, there was no statistically difference between the two groups in their social and emotional skills as rated by the teachers. Whitehurst’s conclusion:
I see these findings as devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-k programs. This is the first large scale randomized trial of a present-day state pre-k program. Its methodology soundly trumps the quasi-experimental approaches that have heretofore been the only source of data on which to infer the impact of these programs. And its results align almost perfectly with those of the Head Start Impact Study, the only other large randomized trial that examines the longitudinal effects of having attended a public pre-k program.
Based on what we have learned from these studies, the most defensible conclusion is that these statewide programs are not working to meaningfully increase the academic achievement or social/emotional skills and dispositions of children from low-income families. I wish this weren’t so, but facts are stubborn things. Maybe we should figure out how to deliver effective programs before the federal government funds preschool for all.