Progressives Renew Push for Nanny State Programs — Despite Poor Results

March 5, 2018

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


Progressives in both parties are continuing to use the government-created problem of fatherless poor and minority families to peddle their schemes of expanding the role of government-as-parent yet again to create more preschool and home visiting programs.

The Problem with Government Preschool

Take, for example, Mississippi school superintendent Dr. Carey Wright (see here for her past exploits), who is leading a newly minted “early childhood network” that will continue working to spread invasive and ineffective pre-K programs to more states. The states currently involved, besides Mississippi, are Maine, New York, Colorado, Tennessee, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Minnesota. It is also likely that this effort will include lots of pre-K data mining that encompasses subjective, invasive social emotional learning (SEL) data.

This early childhood network is being pushed despite mountains of contrary evidence, including this recent article from The Atlantic titled, “The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids: Today’s young children are working more, but they’re learning less.” The article discusses the (often mentioned here) Tennessee study showing that while so-called kindergarten readiness skills improve with pre-K, by first grade children’s attitudes toward education are deteriorating — and by second grade, their academic performance is actually declining. The author of the article gives some important reasons why preschool is having such a negative effect:

Pedagogy and curricula have changed too, most recently in response to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s kindergarten guidelines. Much greater portions of the day are now spent on what’s called ‘seat work’ …The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

The Atlantic article comes at a time when many statements and evidence — even from university-based researchers and more corporately aligned or pro-preschool think tanks (some of which are listed here) — are pouring in showing that preschool is both ineffective and harmful. Here is a particularly relevant Brookings Institute statement published in 2016 by the lead researcher of the Tennessee study — unfortunately, not in time to prevent the Every Student Succeeds Act from imposing wholly unnecessary preschool development grants:

The proposition that expanding pre-K will improve later achievement for children from low-income families is premature. Premature as well is the presumption that solid research exists to guide the content and structure of pre-K programs. Despite more than 50 years of preliminary work on pre-K as an early intervention for young children from poor backgrounds, the field of early childhood education has a relatively small database to use as a guide to effective practice. Lack of evidence about which skills and dispositions are most important to effect in pre-K and what instructional practices would affect them has led us to the current situation of poorly defined, enormously varied programs, all called pre-K, as well as a reliance on a set of quality measures with no empirical validity.

Home Visiting to the Rescue?

Because the mountain of evidence continues to show that preschool is not particularly effective, progressives in both parties are pushing home visiting programs to replace them. The author of a recent piece at the Fordham Institute blog used the cloying and inaccurate “parable” of rescuers (the education reformers) using home visiting to pluck vulnerable children whose family poverty had caused them to be thrown into a river of neurodevelopmental delay, word gaps, achievement gaps, and other horrors that can only be fixed by sending bureaucrats into the home to tell their benighted parents how to raise them.

Here are several reasons why this analogy and analysis are incorrect:

  • Experts in neuropsychology and neurodevelopment admit that there is no 0-3 or 0-5 critical period beyond which it is too late to help vulnerable children. Here is an inconvenient truth from a report considered foundational to the pro-preschool and pro-home visiting camp, especially the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, called “Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development”:

    Available evidence indicates that such critical periods are more exceptional than typical in human development. Assertions that the die has been cast by the time the child enters school are not supported by neuroscience evidence and can create unwarranted pessimism about the potential efficacy of interventions that are initiated after the preschool years.

  • As shown by the Tennessee study, The Atlantic article, and other research, a focus on kindergarten readiness in preschool is not only not helpful, but also actually harmful to longer-term academic achievement. The Atlantic article mentions Finland’s approach of not starting formal reading instruction until age 7 and instead focusing on making sure that “children have heard and listened … They have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed [things] with them … They have asked questions and received answers.” The American system, focused on pushing academics in kindergarten and preschool due to Common Core, is skewed and harmful — as admitted by hundreds of early childhood experts.
  • Home visiting programs in general are not effective, and this is especially true of the Parent-Child Home Program mentioned in the “parable” article. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has shown in repeated reviews that this program is not helpful in improving child development or school readiness — even if improving school readiness were a good thing to do — and that the program as of 2017 does not even meet HHS criteria as a program rigorous enough to review.
  • Home visiting programs do not deal with the root cause of the problem they are trying to solve: single parent families. Poverty is merely a proxy measure for the enormous and tragic consequences of this government-created crisis. Sending bureaucrats into the home will never solve all of the horrific consequences of growing up without two parents replete in the social service literature. As stated in previous writing:

    So, if preschool and especially home visiting are so ineffective, as well as dangerous to parental autonomy and privacy, what should be done instead? Perhaps we should listen to researchers such as Dr. William Jeynes of the University of California-Santa Barbara and Dr. Patrick Fagan of social science organization Marripedia, who have identified intact families and religious faith as the most important of several factors that significantly close or even eliminate the ‘achievement gap.’

    …This is something that more than $2 trillion dollars and 50 years of oppressive, unconstitutional federal interference have never come close to achieving.

    The two-parent family part of this equation can be promoted by removing the marriage penalty in programs like Obamacare (which should be eliminated altogether), ending the penalty for paternal involvement in welfare, and reducing no-fault divorce. The religious involvement part can be achieved by returning to release time to allow students to participate in religious services with their families or extra-curricular clubs. We cannot jump from the preschool frying pan into the home visiting fire, because government programs replacing parents have not ever been nor will ever be successful.

Please keep in contact with your federal legislators about these issues as the budget process continues.


Dr. Karen Effrem is trained as a pediatrician and serves as president of Education Liberty Watch and the executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

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