Obama's pre-school proposal: Can it work?

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 26 2013 9:05 a.m. MST

Many studies show that children who get started right do better throughout their school years. President Barack Obama's proposal to increase the availability of preschool for U.S. children raises hopes and fears.

Associated Press

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A huge pile of research shows that efforts to improve a child's academic potential and address social and learning problems are most effective when they begin early in life — well before school starts, and ideally, from birth. It's the reason President Barack Obama proposed providing access to free preschool in his 2013 State of the Union address. Questions surround the federal government's ability to provide effective early childhood education, though.

Over the last four decades, a compelling body of empirical evidence shows it is possible to improve a wide range of outcomes for vulnerable children well into adult years, and generate benefits to society far in excess of program costs, according to Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child . However, the Harvard researchers note that this effect is dependent on the quality and implementation of the interventions used.

Results of a December 2012 federal study on the $8 billion federal Head Start program, are disappointing. Benefits of the program show up clearly as children who attend move into kindergarten, the study concluded, but those benefits fade away by about third grade. By that time, school performance for kids who attended Head Start is similar to performance of their peers who did not.

Opinions about the cause of "Head Start Fade" are divided. In an article published by Education Week, Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association, said that Head Start does is core job — preparing disadvantaged children for kindergarten — well. For many disadvantaged children, the quality of the schools they attend after leaving Head Start continues to hinder their success, she said.

At conservativeblog.org, a posting by David Hogbern takes a darker view.

"What if there is nothing the government can do for low-income children to improve their educational performance?" Hogbern asks. He then cites research showing that the positive effect of parents reading to their children at home is one of the best indicators of future academic success, and studies showing that low-income parents are less likely to read to their children.

"We all want to cling to the belief that there is something that can be done for those children who did not receive the necessary development at home," Hogbern wrote. "Sadly, it’s a belief that isn’t supported by the evidence. And if we persist in it with programs like Head Start, then we are spending resources in a way that will do little good."

A fact sheet from the White House about the early childhood education proposals was posted online at the time of the State of the Union address. A close reading of the document indicates that the proposal calls for drastic changes to the Head Start program as it now exists, wrote Brookings Institution researcher Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst in a thorough discussion of the proposals. Whitehurst noted that the fact sheet describes a narrower program than the president's verbal remarks about free preschool for all indicated.

"The White House fact sheet makes it clear that the administration is proposing to work with states to fund expansion of taxpayer-funded pre-K for lower-income families. Specifically, the administration’s plan is to share the costs with states that are willing to expand public preschool to reach all 4-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line and that expand their half-day kindergarten programs to full day for the same families," Whitehurst wrote. "The Obama administration’s preschool plan is consistent with the federal role in education and human services since the Lyndon Johnson administration: targeted assistance for services to the economically disadvantaged."

Whitehurst, a former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, had cheers and jeers for the Obama proposals as described in the fact sheet. Positive aspects of the plan were determined to be:

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