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Rebuttal to Recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed on Pre-K

| November 1, 2013 | 0 Comments

THANK YOU Ready Nation for posting this most excellent rebuttal to the recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed on Pre-K.

In contrast to the October 16 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (“The ‘Universal Pre-K’ Fallacy: Free school for 4-year-olds? Sounds great. Too bad it is of no educational value and the cost would be staggering”), more than 360 companies and business leaders across 44 states have signed on to ReadyNation’s Open Letter endorsing the educational and economic benefits of high quality early learning programs, especially for disadvantaged children. A similar statement signed by 35 senior executives, including the current and former leaders of major companies, was published in Politico on Sept. 17. The economic research has been endorsed by the current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke; the leaders of Federal Reserve Banks in Atlanta, Richmond and San Francisco; and the 2000 Nobel Laureate in Economics.

A new report by ten of the nation’s leading early childhood academics, “Investing in Our Future“, concludes “Large-scale public preschool programs can have substantial impacts on children’s early learning. Scientific evidence on the impacts of early childhood education has progressed well beyond exclusive reliance on the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs.”

This op-ed includes numerous selective or mis-representations of the overall data on the impact of quality early learning programs. Below are statements from the op-ed, in italics, and responses using the actual text of reports cited in this op-ed, as well as additional data. Also below are letters to the editor submitted by several business leaders and academic experts. A pdf of this entire response, with endnotes documenting the data below, is here.


Perry was a 1960s experiment that was too small to be statistically valid.
The long-term research on the Perry Preschool Project found a wide variety of outcomes that were large and statistically significant (see below). In fact, because of the small sample, the size of the outcomes had to be even greater in order to have confidence that the program caused them to happen.

High quality meant five days a week; four certified public-school teachers for 20-25 kids; weekly 1.5-hour teacher visits to the home; monthly teacher meetings with parents; a public-school classroom facility. Higher quality than anything else in public school—then or now.
The only item in this list that is rare among good public pre-k programs now is the child-teacher ratio – the commonly accepted ratio now is 10:1. Twelve (out of 52) state-funded pre-k programs rate a 9 or 10 out of 10 on the National Institute for Early Education Research quality rating scale, and 45 programs require teachers to have a Bachelor’s degree comparable to public school teacher credentials. And many pre-k programs operate in public schools and include home visits and/or parent meetings.

Perry claimed other big gains—but not much in learning.
Among the educational outcomes attributed to the Perry program were

  • Higher accomplishment on academic achievement tests at age 7, 9, 10, 14, 19 and 27
  • Lower rates of grade repetition
  • Higher rates of high school graduation (77% vs 60%)
  • In addition, program participants were more likely to be employed, have higher incomes, own a car and have a savings account; and they had many fewer arrests.

In February, Mr. Obama said that “today, fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.” According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, however, seven in ten 4-year-olds attend some kind of preschool program
The NIEER report showed that 42% of 4-year-olds were in some form of state-funded pre-k, Head Start or special education program. The rest were either in another form of program, or none, and the quality varies widely. Since most programs do not score well on NIEER’s quality scale, it is likely that most children are not in a high-quality program.

There is no research supporting the president’s proposition that formal schooling can begin effectively in preschool…In 2005, the RAND Corp. conducted a general survey of early education programs and research. Rand found only 20, mostly very small, programs or studies that showed any “evidence of effectiveness.” Note the absence of the word “educational” in RAND’s description.
In fact, finding 20 robust studies with a sufficiently large sample size that show results is a strong indicator of the impacts of early childhood interventions. Of these 20, 17 showed statistically significant impacts on “cognition/achievement” or “education.” Some of the others didn’t show educational impact because they were intended to affect other outcomes, such as health. The study concludes, “We examined the following benefit domains: cognition and academic achievement, behavioral and emotional competencies, educational progression and attainment, child maltreatment, health, delinquency and crime, social welfare program use, and labor market success. For each of these domains (with the exception of social welfare program use), statistically significant benefits were found in at least two-thirds of the programs we reviewed that measured outcomes in that domain… While the evidence from the programs we review is compelling, it is important to note that these programs do not represent all early childhood programs or even the subset of effective programs…for decisionmakers considering investments in early childhood interventions, our findings indicate that a body of sound research exists that can guide resource allocation decisions.”

[T]he “Head Start Impact Study,” a multiyear study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services during the Bush and Obama administrations [and] [r]eleased in December 2012…found “no significant impacts” in education—in the short or long term.
The Head Start study found significant impacts on performance on various academic measures, such as vocabulary, at the end of the program. It is true that these effects largely disappeared for the overall group by third grade. However, these findings should be considered in some context:

  • Many other studies have found longer-term impacts of Head Start. For example, a meta-analysis of 28 Head Start evaluations found that “Head Start is effective in improving children’s short-term cognitive and achievement outcomes, and that the magnitude of Head Start’s impacts are similar to those of other ECE programs.
  • The study did find longer-term impacts on some groups of children, such as African-American children or those with parents with depressive symptoms
  • This study was implemented starting in 2007 – before the higher quality standards now mandated were put into effect
  • Many children in the “control” group in this study had access to some preschool services, including perhaps other Head Start programs. So the evaluation did not measure the difference between HS and no HS – only between a particular HS program and whatever the parents secured for the child.
  • It is also very possible that longer-term outcomes will show up later in life. This view is supported by a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research: “Assessments that Head Start is ineffective based on the NHSIS results are in our view premature, given our currently limited understanding of how and why early childhood education improves long-term life chances.”

Even the assertion that preschool yields better “life outcomes” is suspect. Preschool doesn’t lead to significant improvement in elementary and secondary school achievement, and thus not to college or trade-school matriculation.
In fact, dozens of long-term and current studies have shown the impact of preschool on later educational achievement. For example,

  • High-quality early childhood care and education can close up to half of the educational achievement gap.
  • Pre-kindergarten education, especially for disadvantaged children, has been shown to:
    • Decrease special education placement by 49% and grade retention by 50%
    • Increase high school graduation by 31% and college attendance by more than 80%
  • A 2013 study shows that children in New Jersey’s most disadvantaged communities who participated in the Abbott pre-K program made significant gains in literacy, language, math and science that persisted through fourth and fifth grades.
  • Students enrolled in Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) were much more likely than non-participants to pass a statewide assessment in fourth grade. They were also much more likely to graduate from high school (58 percent compared to 43 percent).

There are a few statements on which Mr. Jancke and many other business leaders agree:
[A]lmost everyone supports preschool programs of some kind…Most states, including New York, don’t require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten. If politicians want to help children, universal full-day kindergarten nationwide would be a good place to start.

This evidence makes a strong case for diverse policymakers to come together to support early learning – including both pre-kindergarten education and full-day kindergarten – to help children fulfill their potential in life.

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