WSJ Falls Behind on Head Start Coverage

Obama in Pre-K Classroom
“President Barack Obama visits a pre-kindergarten classroom at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., Feb. 14, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)” via WhiteHouse.gov

Since President Obama’s State of the Union speech declaring his goal of preschool for all young learners, there’s been no shortage of misinformed, factual inaccurate, and/or just downright dishonest hackery. I won’t enumerate those pieces for you, since most are neither worth the time nor the page clicks, but the Wall Street Journal’s February 25th Head Start for All is particularly notable both in its scope of misinformation and its prominence among media coverage (let’s not get me started on the condescending tone used to diminish one of the biggest education reform proposals in recent memory). From the very start, its frames pre-K as some sort of Bizarro World policy suggestion: “Government failure is hardly new, though President Obama has given it a characteristic new twist: A program’s proven inability to do the things it is supposed to do is now an argument for expanding it.”

Luckily, I don’t have to deconstruct this piece, because several more eloquent and even-tempered experts in the field have already offered their expertise. Here for your edification is a quick look at the responses offered. All are worth reading in their entirety to bring you up to speed on the realities of this debate.

Larry Schweinhart, President of the HighScope Education Research Foundation, wrote a letter to the paper (which is currently being shared at the blog of the National Institute for Early Education Research) challenging their conclusions on the Perry Preschool Program study, which he directed. While noting that the Perry and Abcedarian studies are not the only studies support the effectiveness of pre-K, Schweinhart notes Perry is significantly more cost-effective than the editorial suggested:

“…[T]he Perry Preschool cost per child was well below the $16,000 per child per year or more you said it cost. In current dollars, it cost $11,107 per child per year, about the same as the cost per K-12 student in the U.S. The Perry Preschool program is not that hard to replicate—and have its return on investment widely realized. We simply need to insist on reasonable program standards – qualified teachers using a proven curriculum, partnership with parents, and regular evaluation…”

Since SOTU, Tim Bartik, a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, has used his blog to respond to misinformation in the media and make clear what research really does indicate on pre-K. Bartik has worked for years on the economics of pre-K and is one of the researchers on the well-regarded Tulsa Pre-K Program study.  Bartik addressed a number of issues with the WSJ editorial, including even the fact that the headline’s very suggestion – that the President is seeking to expand Head Start to all children – is rejected on face by just reading the White House fact sheet. Bartik expresses a similar concern to Schweinhart that the evidence of pre-K success does not come from simply a few “boutique” programs, but rather a more robust field of research that has been ignored in the WSJ editorial. The entire blog is a truly wonderful and thorough deconstruction of a truly flawed editorial. Bartik also followed up a few days later with a response specifically to the WSJ’s editorial’s contention that a study of pre-K in Georgia (by Maria Donovan Fitzpatrick at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research) was misinterpreted and presented as “unduly pessimistic.” His blog sets the record straight on what’s become an often-cited study as Georgia is closely examined in this policy debate, but also serves as a great primer in understanding the difficulty and nuance of studying the effects of pre-K in a large population.

Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, also responded to the misrepresentations of the WSJ piece in a letter that was printed by the paper. Guernsey also holds that the President’s proposal was misrepresented by labeling it an expansion of Head Start, noting that the plan calls for the federal government to empower and support state efforts on pre-K at a time when “[a]round the country, good preschools want to expand and improve.” Guernsey built on these points in a blog post, calling for a substantive debate on this policy proposal and sounding the sobering alarm that:

“If we continue at our current rate of progress, “it will take more than three decades to reach the point where even 50 percent of young children are reading proficiently at the end of third grade,” according to the 2012 Child Well-Being Index published by the Foundation for Child Development….Most developed countries are already well-ahead of the United States in making public investments in early care and education. We cannot afford to keep stalling.”

The National Institute for Early Education Research (where I am employed full-time) released a policy report specifically meant to tackle misunderstandings and misinformation in ongoing debates around the President’s proposal. Pre-K has a rich research base, with long-term studies of effectiveness going back almost half a century as well as more recent studies of the effects of state-funded pre-K programs. This report is not a response to any one media report but rather seeks to frame the pre-K debate in solid research. Steve Barnett, NIEER Director, explains:

“Both science and public policy are best advanced based on impartial analysis of all the available evidence. No single study stands on its own, much less provides the definitive answers to policy questions on its own. This requires that scientists and policymakers consider all the evidence rather than simply select a few studies that fit their preconceived notions. The Obama administration’s new universal pre-K proposal first announced in the State of the Union address comports conclusions drawn from a full review of the evidence, just as one would hope.

Critics of the pre-K proposal in the ensuing debate have not followed the same approach. Their attacks on the President’s proposal have been based on a few selected studies considered in isolation and when convenient, misinterpreted.”

A federal plan to expand pre-K raises a lot of important questions on what, how, who, and at what cost. But it will be impossible to have a productive conversation about education young learners for the future without setting the facts straight.

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