How to Endorse pre-K without Actually Fibbing

by Martin Harris

If you’ve been following the on-going argument over pre-K productivity –whether a program for kids still too young for conventional Kindergarten, and, as originally intended, solely for children deemed socio-economically disadvantaged (translation: unlikely to get parental prep-for-school at home) is worth what it costs– you’ve been reading the various studies of the effectiveness of the now 47-year-old Head Start program. You already know that they’ve all reached the same conclusion: for example, the December 2012 findings of the Health and Human Services Department, in a 346-page report, widely touted as ‘the most comprehensive to date” which followed toddlers who won lotteries to join Head Start and those who didn’t, in several States, found that “there were no measurable differences between the two groups, by Grade 3, across 47 different measures of outcome.”

That no-productivity finding hasn’t changed the politics of Head Start –in deeply-blue-State Vermont, Governor Shumlin still endorses it as “incredibly important”, and in newly-red-State Tennessee, Governor Haslam won’t quite come out against it, but declines to spend any more on it– but it (and the many which have preceded and followed the HHS meta-analysis, like, most recently, the one from Vanderbilt University in Nashville) have forced its defenders to be careful in their choice of phrase. They no longer claim that HS (now called Essential Early Education) produces the immediate gains in primary-grade academic achievement once declared by the Federal government to be the objective of its Head Start initiative. But they do claim that that its benefits are longer in range and, of course, more difficult to quantify. Occasionally, they have gotten a bit too specific: for example it was briefly argued in Vermont during the Prez 44 “economic stimulus” deficit-experiment in Keynesian print-and-spend- to-create-jobs-and-votes that Head Start expansion would create jobs for educators, who would then promptly spend their earnings and thereby end their part of the economic recession, a bit too obvious in terms of voter-purchase than was deemed discreet, so that WPA-style (consult your high school history student on New Deal employment strategies) argument hasn’t been much repeated.

Instead, the new sets of claims are that more important goals than mere literacy, numeracy, and classroom deportment have been achieved: for example, that early HS grads, now some 40 years old, have been better citizens. “…They are less likely to have been involved in crime, more likely to be working, and less likely to require public assistance,” writes Dr. Rebecca Issel, Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education at East Tennessee State University. But she offers no stats on crime, unemployment, or Food Stamps (new label : Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT cards) to prove her assertion. To start her recent local-paper op-ed piece (header: “Pre-K Programs Pay Off for Children and Tennessee) she describes “how some children come to school never having had a book read to them, never having seen their name in print, and never having had the opportunity to work cooperatively with others”. All those deficits, of course, don’t typically happen in middle- and upper-class families, which explains why those under-class “family” shortfalls will need government intervention, as was described in the March 2003 issue of The Education Reporter, under the header “Do Pre-K Care Centers Work?” and argues that a necessary component to the academic side of Head Start will have to be “non-parental care arrangements for pre-K children”. No mention of that in Dr. Issel’s essay, nor even recent (and expensive) attempts to improve pre-K productivity by employing more staff to visit more (frequently single-mother) households to offer more instruction on, basically “how-to-parent” for the adult(s), and even books, papers, and pencils for the kids. Nor does she even tangentially approach the underlying governance question: in a Constitutional Republic, at what point does a beneficent Federal government award itself the power to remove children from households it deems inadequate because there aren’t enough books on the coffee table? There’s not much doubt that young idealists working for government (think “Teach for America”) could do a better job of pre-K-ing kids (as our parents did for us, and as we did for our own kids in the ‘60’s, and were reprimanded by educators for intruding into their professional domain of superior expertise) than some under-class parents then or now, but whether government can be trusted with that discretionary power ( think NSA and IRS for recent examples) is a subject which pre-K advocates like Dr. Issel carefully avoid. As your Humble Scribe reported in an earlier column on this same subject, presently all States have parental-failure statutes –for example, Vermont has VSA15/901, which holds parents responsible for their kids’ vandalism– but don’t yet dare to remove children who haven’t been adequately pre-K’d, from a presumably sub-standard home-setting. A hint at future trends: Harvard’s Dr. David Ludwig dares go, rhetorically, where ETSU’s Dr. Roberta Issel won’t, advocating mandatory non-parental custody for obese children. Too many Twinkies is as bad as too few books.

Dr. Issel summarizes by arguing that more money would make Head Start better –“by accepting the $64.5 million from the Pre-School-for-All Initiative, the number of young children able to attend quality pre-K programs will double”– without addressing the “quality” question itself, and by arguing that “attending a quality Pre-K program can provide a positive beginning for all those young children” again without addressing Head Start’s known quality shortfalls. There are (anecdotal reports, no stats) some private-sector quality (as actually measured by testing!) pre-K programs already in operation, but Head Start isn’t one of them. Dr. Issell doesn’t mention that inconvenient fact, either.