The Curious Incident of the Pre-K Effectiveness Evidence in Montpelier

by Martin Harris

With apologies to the late English author Arthur Conan Doyle, whose “Silver Blaze” detective story contained the memorable anecdote of the dog which didn’t bark because there was no nefarious intruder at the crime scene, the recent legislative discussion of a State mandate for universal pre-K availability has offered a striking parallel: the advocates have been remarkably silent about the actual, measured-by-testing, effectiveness and productivity record, based on nearly five decades of experience, of the extra years of public education they now advocate. It requires no investigator of Sherlock Holmes skill to read up on the history of Head Start, a key component of the Federal government’s Great Society social-engineering programs and ambitions of the ‘60’s, and learn the conclusion of every published study: children (typically of lower socio-economic status and therefore statistically predictable to do less well in the graded school system than their better-situated-at-birth peers) who have been enrolled in the typical pre-K program are found by researchers to be no better prepared for the primary grades than others in their same-SES cohort who weren’t so enrolled. Gains in learning readiness for such essentials as Math and Reading seem to have vanished by Grade 2 or 3. Latest published, but typical of multiple studies: the Dec 2012 “Head Start Impact Study”, conducted and published by the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, which followed 5000 low-SES enrollees and produced this conclusion “there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through Grade 3, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group”.

It’s a bit inaccurate to write, of this Head Start research and conclusions, that “the dog didn’t bark” with a warning, because these studies, if taken at face value as they should have been but weren’t, would have, under the more normal when-there’s-a- productivity-problem-fix-it circumstances which prevail in the private sector, but not in the public domain, brought forth better-designed and more effective programs. The studies have offered a series of “barks”, but government Head Start program-designers have chosen not to re-design in response. Interestingly, there’s substantial anecdotal evidence that private-sector pre-K programs, church- or secular-based, have responded and are, measurably, achieving noteable results.

That’s why “the dog that didn’t bark” refers not to the researchers who, with repeated and sophisticated measurement efforts, found no lasting effect for the Head Start investment. It should be applied, more accurately, to the whole range of advocates in politics, public education, and, of course, most of the Main Stream Media, who have chosen instead to go silent and evasive on known HS program productivity and instead, to presume all sorts of beneficial results while arguing, of course, for expansion in program reach, government spending, and sector employment. All the usual suspects, from Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin to the editorial-writers at the Rutland Herald, have declaimed eloquently about the wonders of Head Start accomplishment. Typical: in a 3 May 13 editorial, the Herald called it “an invaluable service”, explain in more detail that “giving children of low-income Vermonters a good start in school, with a comfortable introduction to books, play, and other children, would provide a meaningful boost”. As the well-informed editors of the Herald well know, when measurements of “meaningful boost” are taken, there’s no boost there. You might call it the Fourth Estate dog choosing, for political-connections reasons, to remain conspicuously silent. And just so for the Vt Guv: “There isn’t a Vermonter who doesn’t agree that pre-K is incredibly important; the question is how do we pay for it?” And, indeed, pre-K would be terribly important, if it worked. (Note the use of the verbal past tense indicating subjunctive-contrary-to-fact mode.) And there’s no question that middle- and upper-SES parents do a far better job, on average, of pre-K-ing their kids than low-SES parents do; which explains why we of the ancient times before Pre-K were always so prepped by our parents, but which doesn’t explain, unless you choose to accept some very unpleasant theories, why, when we became parents in the 60’s, we were very actively discouraged from doing the same sort of thing at home by a range of educators and educational theoreticians. Now part of the pre-K argument is that we parents don’t do it well enough.

Golden Domer Margaret Cheney (D-Norwich) comes closest to the uncomfortable truth when she opines of HS that “I think the underlying issue here is not its value”, thereby prudently choosing not to bark about productivity and results which don’t show up when studied for. And that’s what other advocates have done, using a rhetorical two-step where first glowing generalities about pre-K theory (assuming it works) are offered, followed by a swift pirouette to other benefits, like the freebie child-care benefit for working mothers who can’t afford the expensive real thing, but can keep their jobs when other taxpayers fund the child-care expenses for them. And, of course, kids being nanny-supervised at home or school aren’t really expected to learn too much about Math or Reading. This sort of reasoning similarly underlies such Keynesian-multiplier claims (yes, we are supposed to watch with wonder and admiration at how that’s worked extraordinarily well with the $2 billion of fiat money just printed by the Fed) as well as the one that “each $1 in universal pre-school education saves $7 to $14 down the road,” as Vermont’s highly-skilled economist-Guv has repeatedly argued.

Just as the dogs in Vermont’s Second and Fourth Estates (the nobles in government and the opinionators in journalism) have mostly chosen not to bark about the (non-existent) productivity aspect of Head Start’s proclaimed educational purpose, they’ve similarly mostly chosen to remain just as silent about its trio of very real accomplishments: increasing teacher and aide employment, State spending, and union political clout at a time of major K-12 enrollment decline (caused by a whole ‘nother set of Montpelier policies, but that’s a whole’ nother column-subject) and thereby purchasing for the Second Estate the near-permanent camaraderie, support, and, of course, votes of the (we don’t have an Estate number) very-substantial (a lowest-in-the-Nation pupil-teacher ratio will accomplish that for you, even though it accomplishes nothing for student achievement) public-education electoral power-bloc. Parenthetically, it too doesn’t bark about test scores and productivity for its own K-12 efforts. Wisely so.

One thought on “The Curious Incident of the Pre-K Effectiveness Evidence in Montpelier

  1. Martin is dead right about all this. I have written at least seven commentaries dating back to 2003 about the U-preK fetish, and pored over the famous studies that re offered to support it. There is not one study that shows that U-preK kids can be distinguished from non U-preK kids by third grade. But you can’t get the pre-K fetishists to face up to any of this.

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