by Karen R. Effrem, MD
The U.S. House Subcommittee on Preschool, Elementary, and Secondary Education recently held a hearing titled “Opportunities for State Leadership of Early Childhood Programs.” Although some on the subcommittee made an effort to focus on the duplicative and fragmented nature of the 44 different preschool programs, there was only one brave effort to discuss the preponderance of evidence that government preschool programs are not only ineffective but also, in several cases, harmful.
That courageous member, Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.), who will be quoted in a moment, was a refreshing oasis in a desert of outrageous statements, such as this one by subcommittee Ranking Member Jared Polis (D-Colo.):
Frankly, the debate about the efficacy of early learning is over. It is simply undeniable that high quality early childhood education has lifelong benefits for kids. So, together, now we need to think creatively about how to further support, expand, grow quality of early learning… (25:04)
Either Rep. Polis is woefully uninformed about the state of early childhood research or he is being willfully misleading. Neither situation is particularly desirable in a potential gubernatorial candidate.
Rep. Garrett was the only person in the hearing — member or witness — who attempted to set the record straight about the failure of government preschool. He quoted a Heritage Foundation review of the very important 2010 study of Head Start that said, in part:
Head Start had ‘little or no positive effect for the children granted access and for the four year old group compared to similarly situated children not granted access to Head Start, the program failed to raise cognitive abilities on forty-one measures, specifically language skills, literacy, math, and school performance for all of the participants. Alarmingly, for the three-year-old group, the program actually had a harmful effect on the teacher-assessed math skills of those children once they entered kindergarten. Teachers reported that non-participating students were better prepared in math skills than those that participated in Head Start.’ (1:09:48)
The 2012 follow-up study that followed the same children as in the 2010 study through third grade instead of stopping at first grade also found no benefits of Head Start after the preschool year(s):
Looking across the full study period, from the beginning of Head Start through 3rd grade, the evidence is clear that access to Head Start improved children’s preschool outcomes across developmental domains, but had few impacts on children in kindergarten through 3rd grade.
The 2010 and 2012 studies are just two examples of literally hundreds of government studies showing the failure and/or harm of Head Start. This sampling dates back to 1985 and includes a government review of 600 studies from 1997 that could not find any benefit of the program, saying:
The body of research on current Head Start is insufficient to draw conclusions about the impact of the national program.
This of course does not even begin to discuss the numerous studies showing ineffectiveness, fade-out of beneficial effects, and actual academic and emotional harm of preschool programs other than Head Start. And despite what Rep. Polis says, quality of the Head Start program makes no difference. The 2014 study of Head Start examined the effect of quality on program outcomes and found:
We find little evidence that quality matters to impacts of Head Start using the available quality measures from the study across two age cohorts, three quality dimensions, five outcomes, and several years. The one exception is that for 3-year-old program entrants low exposure quality, defined as less exposure to academic activities during Head Start participation, produces better behavioral impacts in the short-run than more exposure to academic activities. Even so, there is no indication that either high quality Head Start or low quality Head Start in any dimension leads to program impacts lasting into third grade. [Emphasis added]
Sadly, this ruse that “quality” pre-K will lead to enhanced outcomes is being used to attempt to both impose national “baby Common Core” style pre-K content standards and to expand federal and state government regulation of the childcare industry — about 80 percent of which is private — via subjective, ineffective quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS).
The Head Start statute requires in eleven different places that Head Start programs and all related state preschool programs use the Head Start national preschool standards or the statewide pre-K content standards that include social emotional development and discuss gender identity with three year olds. This is federally incentivized by Head Start, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants, and the Preschool Development Grants in ESSA, each of which require state or national standards, a QRIS, or both.
The hearing witness from Minnesota, Ericca Maas, represents the organization that has been pushing that state’s scholarship program based on the ratings of the QRIS for several years. To receive a 3- or 4-star rating in Minnesota system, required for parents to use state scholarship funds with that provider, the provider must use Minnesota’s early childhood content standards that until this year discussed gender identity and environmentalism with children as young as three. The new version still discusses the environment and adds in family structure diversity under the still subjective and controversial social emotional category.
It is interesting to note that even though Minnesota’s statist model to impose these controversial standards on private, religious, and family childcare programs is lauded by pre-K proponents as a model for the feds to fund and for states to emulate, when asked during the hearing if the program has closed achievement gaps, Maas admitted unequivocally that it had not (1:17:08).
Very sadly, despite this plethora of research showing the ineffectiveness of Head Start, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee just advanced a bill to the House floor that increased Head Start funding by $22 million when the Trump administration had wisely called for it to be decreased by $84 million. This is also another shining example showing how research showing pet programs to be ineffective is ignored and why federal education research does not need to be expanded.
Let us hope that more members of Congress will join Rep. Garrett and truly understand how ineffective and harmful government interference in the raising and education of children can be.