Interlude—Preschool’s one brief shining moment: Something unusual happened this morning.
For that reason, we’ll postpone, until our next post, the topic we had planned to discuss here.
Something unusual happened today! On the New York Times op-ed page, three different columns discussed the explosive, hot new trend toward preschool education.
Attention to a public school issue? This sort of thing just isn’t done! We thought we’d give you an overview.
Two of the pieces were written by regular columnists—Gail Collins and Nicholas Kristof. By way of contrast, the third column was written by Willingham and Grissmer, a pair of professors who seem to know what they’re talking about.
Does that mean that Collins and Kristof don’t know? These were our reactions as we perused today’s columns:
We started with Collins, who wasn’t writing about how funny Butch Otter’s name really is.
To our surprise, Collins made an important point. She also presented an interesting set of facts about preschool proposals for the state and city of New York:
COLLINS (1/30/14): Early education is one of the best tools for breaking the poverty-to-poverty trap. Unfortunately, it only works if it’s high quality, and high quality is expensive. Yet very little of this newfound enthusiasm comes with serious money attached.In fairness, Collins managed to work in some snark about the great state of New Christie. That said:
[Governor] Cuomo’s estimate of how much it would cost to do preschool for the entire state is lower than [Mayor] de Blasio’s estimate for just New York City. Which is, on a per-pupil basis, much lower than the amount New Jersey spends on a much-praised prekindergarten program. (Cheers to New Jersey for your effort to provide quality early education to the state’s poorest children. We are so impressed that we will leap right over the fact that you only did it because a judge made you.)
In that first paragraph, Collins states an important (logical) point in the form of a truism: “Preschool only works if it’s high quality.”
However circular that may sound, we think it’s important to keep it in mind. Presumably, you could institute a form of early education which didn’t help low-income kids succeed in school and in later life.
For better or worse, Collins also suggests that early education “works” as long as it’s sufficiently expensive. Almost surely, she has no idea what she’s talking about at that point.
Across the page, down the left-hand margin, Kristof took a more earnest approach.
When Kristof discusses public school issues, he tends to take dictation from ruling “educational expert” elites. Given the weakness of those elites, he often wanders onto the shoals.
Today, for example, Kristof is still singing the praises of miraculous Shanghai, “one of the top-performing school systems in the world,” where “nearly all preschoolers participate in early education programs.”
Those lyrics are straight from the PISA hymn book. But uh-oh! As Tom Loveless recently seemed to show, Shanghai only looks like the world’s top system because a large percentage of its 15-year-old students aren’t allowed to attend its schools and take those PISA tests.
(The PISA bureaucracy, which increasingly looks politicized, hasn’t accepted Loveless’ work. Therefore, neither does Kristof.)
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that preschool is a bad thing. It’s just a warning about the things you may read in Kristof’s education columns.
As is his wont, Kristof is much more detailed today than Collins. That said, he begins with a standard bromide—an official current script:
KRISTOF (1/30/14): President Obama called again in his State of the Union address for Congress to support high-quality preschool for all, noting that 30 states are already moving ahead on this front (including New York).In that passage, Kristof flatly says it: “preschool works.” At present, this is a standard script. As evidence, he cites the Republican-led state of Oklahoma.
“Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education,” Obama said. The House speaker, John Boehner, who sat stonily through most of Obama’s speech, applauded that line. Congress also unexpectedly increased financing this year for early education.
Aside from apple pie, preschool may also be the only issue on which voters agree. A poll last year found that 60 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats support expansion of prekindergarten. Republican-led states like Oklahoma have been leaders in early education for a simple reason: It works.
That’s another standard official point.
Has preschool “worked” in Oklahoma? As we noted the last time Kristof went there, Oklahoma has had expansive preschool for fifteen years—and its test scores on the NAEP are still extremely low. Kristof blows past such information because the educational experts don’t tell him to say things like that.
Collins lards her columns with jokes; Kristof favors scholarly cites. Helpfully, we’ll offer a warning about pundit claims of this type:
KRISTOF: [E]arly education has always had an impact not through cognitive gains but through long-term improvements in life outcomes. With Perry, Abecedarian and other programs, educational gains fade, yet, mysteriously, there are often long-term improvements on things that matter even more, such as arrest rates and high school graduation rates. The Head Start Impact Study couldn’t examine those outcomes.We don’t know the answers to the following questions, but we know we should ask them:
Other researchers have, and their findings are almost unanimous. One rigorous study led by Eliana Garces, then of U.C.L.A., found that Head Start graduates were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college than their peers. David Deming of Harvard found that children who attended Head Start were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely as young adults to be “idle”—out of a job and out of school.
Jens Ludwig of University of Chicago found that Head Start reduced child mortality in elementary years, apparently because of screening and treatment referrals.
Beyond Head Start, a series of randomized trials of other early education initiatives repeatedly found the same result: Long-term outcomes improve.
How much improvement is observed in those life outcomes? How much more likely are Head Start kids to graduate from high school?
By how much is child mortality reduced? How much do arrest rates decline?
We don’t know the answer to these questions; we don’t assume that Kristof does. For our money, it’s maddening when pundits blow past such obvious questions, as they routinely do in support of preferred conclusions.
Kristof also skips past this question: why doesn't preschool lead to later academic achievement? Why do early gains get lost? Why can’t this loss be challenged and defeated?
According to Kristof, preschool works, like Obama said. According to Collins, preschool works as long as it’s expensive.
This brings us to today’s third column, the column by the certified experts.
Uh-oh! The specialists don’t want to rush ahead into pundit world happy talk. Right in their opening paragraph, they challenge Obama’s statement:
WILLINGHAM AND GRISSMER (1/30/14): When New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, went to Albany earlier this week to talk about his program for universal preschool, the discussion reportedly focused on funding, not on whether or how preschool would actually help children. President Obama seemed equally confident when he introduced his plan for universal preschool last year, flatly stating, “We know this works.” But the state of research is actually much murkier...Collins and Kristof brandished a bumper sticker. One of them even told us, again, about the greatness of Shanghai—and of Oklahoma, one of our lowest-performing states.
Hold on a minute, the specialists said. Even if Obama has said it, it isn’t clear that the happy talk du jour is actually correct.
The scholars go on to explain themselves in abundant detail. They make sensible-sounding proposals about where we should go from here.
Meanwhile, Collins and Kristof are largely repeating memorized scripts. This is the process through which we receive vast amounts of our “news” and our “knowledge.”
(Susan Rice said it wasn’t al Qaeda! Our public schools are in decline! Al Gore said he invented the Internet! The Social Security trust fund is just an accounting fiction!)
Friend, do you care about the interests of our low-income kids? If so, before you listen to Collins, we suggest you review her astounding mistakes about the Texas schools. Before you listen to Kristof, you ought to review Oklahoma’s test scores and Loveless’ work about Shanghai.
When he writes about education, Kristof tends to work from elite expert scripts—the ones which had Bill Keller proclaiming that we have experienced “decades of embarrassing decline in our K-12 schools.”
That statement by Keller was crazily wrong. But elite pundits endlessly push that script and well-intentioned people come to believe it.
“My fellow Americans, the state of the union is heavily scripted!” In fairness, you couldn’t expect Obama to say that the other night. Over the course of the past six years, he has voiced a wide array of standard nostrums himself.
It feels good to say it: “Preschool works!” If you care about low-income kids, you’ll insist on a fuller discussion. We might even ask our TV stars to talk about low-income kids!
It’s fun to talk about Governor Christie, and it’s a serious topic. But what about Jersey's low-income kids, about whom Collins has snarked?