Monday, June 18, 2018

OCPA column: How beneficial is pre-K?

How beneficial is pre-K?
by Greg Forster

Should Oklahoma expand pre-K education, or invest those funds in other policy solutions? One of the critical questions at stake is how effective pre-K programs are relative to other things we might do with all that money.

The gold standard in education research is random assignment, the same method used in medical trials. When this kind of method isn’t possible, as is the case in Oklahoma’s pre-K programs, other methods can still be used, although they’re generally not as scientifically reliable.

Russ Whitehurst, former head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, conducted a comprehensive review of decades of research on pre-K programs. He found that the higher the scientific quality of a study, the less likely it was to find sustained benefits from pre-K. Of the 10 studies he identified that included data on later outcomes, six found meaningful benefits and four did not, but the four that found no long-term benefits were better-quality studies.

Specifically, Whitehurst noted that “not one of the studies that has suggested long-term positive impacts of center-based early childhood programs has been based on a well-implemented and appropriately analyzed randomized trial, and nearly all have serious limitations in external validity.” Meanwhile, “the only two studies in the list with both high internal and external validity (Head Start Impact and Tennessee) find null or negative impacts, and all of the studies that point to very small, null, or negative effects have high external validity.”

Since Whitehurst conducted that research review in 2014, one additional study has received special attention in Oklahoma. In a 2017 study, William Gormley, Jr., Deborah Phillips, and Sara Anderson found positive results from pre-K in Tulsa visible as late as seventh grade. However, to use the researchers’ own words, the size of the positive effects they found was “rather modest.”

Also, because of data limitations, they had to abandon the high-quality scientific model used in earlier Tulsa pre-K research in favor of a much less reliable method; its value is not zero, but it must be considered less informative than the studies we have that are of top quality.

Hence, their study continued the pattern identified by Whitehurst.

In addition to considering this empirical evidence, policymakers should ask if the expansion of pre-K might actually disrupt the parent/child bond or cause other unintended social harm.

Rather than grow the bureaucratic state and have government employees incrementally replace the role of parents in the lives of children, another approach is to strengthen the social capital of impoverished households in ways that strengthen parents rather than replacing them.

Policymakers shouldn’t spend big money expanding pre-K when the benefits are so uncertain. They should also take pre-K off Oklahoma’s automatic-funding conveyor belt; it should have to make a case for itself like every other discretionary expense.

Moreover, Oklahoma should consider introducing school choice design in existing pre-K programs, to strengthen the freedom and power of parents. Oklahoma’s existing program permits schools to partner with community organizations; why not allow community organizations to serve parents directly?

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He writes monthly for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) and has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. This column is excerpted from a policy brief published this month by OCPA.

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