Emily Washington is a policy research manager for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. She blogs at Neighborhood Effects.
President Obama's support of an early childhood education entitlement program for low-income students has made headlines as a bold proposal for education reform. The president's plan comes in the face of test scores demonstrating that the United States is lagging behind other countries in math and science and that the achievement gap for low-income and minority students remains persistent. A reasonable person would understandably want to see improved educational outcomes for all students in the United States, and particularly low-income students.
However, rhetoric alone will not improve educational outcomes. Obama describes his plan as having the potential to provide a return on investment of seven dollars for each dollar spent. Such an assertion requires the assumption that state preschool programs provide participants advantages that will stay with them throughout their educational careers and ultimately into higher-paying jobs than they would have had they not attended preschool. This assertion seems to be extrapolated from evidence of the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Early Intervention Project—two randomized early childhood intervention projects conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. These two programs successfully improved education and employment outcomes for participants with those in the treatment groups ultimately holding higher-skill jobs and earning higher salaries than those in the control groups.
The Abecedarian Early Intervention Project cost over $70,000 per student and began when the participating children were infants. By contrast, Head Start is a federally-funded early childhood education program that costs about $8,000 annually per student. It has not been demonstrated to provide beneficiaries with lasting advantages compared to their peers who do not participate.
Enacting dramatic interventions such as the Perry Preschool or Abecedarian Intervention programs for all low-income children is unrealistic, and suggesting that state-run programs could have similar effects is irresponsible. This is not to say that state programs provide no benefit, but rather that evidence is not available to verify whether they provide lasting benefits. At this stage, promoting increased expenditures on early childhood education allows policymakers to appear as if they are working to improve educational outcomes—a goal every reasonable person supports—without disclosing how they will achieve these improvements.
In a study of preschool attendance and educational outcomes, Katherine Magnuson and Jane Waldfogel found that federal spending on Head Start has contributed to the trend of higher enrollment rates in preschool for black students. Beginning in the mid-1990s, black four-year-olds began attending preschool at higher rates than their white counterparts, and in 2000 black three-year-olds also outpaced white attendance. Preschool attendance among Hispanic students continues to lag behind white enrollment rates. This increased preschool attendance does provide small gains in school readiness for its attendees, but no studies have shown that Head Start or state preschool programs provide benefits to participants that they carry beyond early elementary school. The achievement gap persists in test scores at the elementary, middle, and high school level.
Accurately measuring the outcomes of education programs is critical for providing policymakers, educators, and the public with the necessary data to know what works. Without this data we cannot know whether or not putting scarce taxpayer resources toward preschool will provide lasting benefits to participants, let alone provide societal benefits in excess of costs.
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