“Study after study shows that the earlier a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road,” Obama said in a Feb. 14 campaign-style speech. “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on — boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, reducing violent crime.”
But author, professor and economist Charles Murray has examined that claim, looking for the numbers to back it up. They don’t exist.
“Obama wants to help our nation’s children flourish,” Murray wrote for the Bloomberg news service last week. “So do I. So does everyone who is aware of the large number of children who are not flourishing. There are just two problems with his solution: The evidence used to support the positive long-term effects of early childhood education is tenuous, even for the most intensive interventions. And for the kind of intervention that can be implemented on a national scale, the evidence is zero.”
The two biggest studies on early childhood education are the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project, which were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively.
Also, both studies were evaluated by groups and researchers with a stake in the outcomes. Murray calls them “well-meaning,” but they had clear, vested interests in the promotion of pre-school.
Even the federal government’s cherished Head Start program fails to show outcomes any different than control groups of children who don’t participate in the program.
“In the most rigorous evaluation ever conducted, Head Start doesn’t show results that persist even until the third grade,” Murray says. “Let me rephrase this more starkly: As of 2013, no one knows how to use government programs to provide large numbers of small children who are not flourishing with what they need. It’s not a matter of money. We just don’t know how.”
Actually, we do. The single greatest factor in a child’s success in school is parental involvement. That factor itself skews studies; children whose parents care enough to ensure their children attend Head Start regularly (attendance is a nagging problem for the program) are the parents who are going to ensure their children work hard at school.
As Murray points out, the government has few tools when it comes to making a parent do his or her job. But we can’t do it for them.