Part 4—Why Obama faces great odds: Last Tuesday, President Obama proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”

With blinding speed, some unlikely suspects fell into line, stating their heartfelt agreement with this lofty goal. For one example, let’s return to one part of Gail Collins’ column.

According to Collins, here’s what happened after Dick Nixon vetoed a day care bill in 1971. In this passage, Collins’ concern about preschool seems boundless. Below, we’ll note a few points:
COLLINS (2/14/13): Now, 42 years later, working parents of every economic level scramble madly to find quality programs for their preschoolers, while the waiting lines for poor families looking for subsidized programs stretch on into infinity.

And President Obama is trying, against great odds, to do something for 4-year-olds.

People, think about this for a minute. We have no bigger crisis as a nation than the class barrier. We’re near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to upward mobility. A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be in the United States. But here we are.
According to Collins, we have “no bigger crisis as a nation” than the crisis Obama’s proposal addresses. But how odd! Using Nexis, we can find no previous instance when Collins wrote a column about the need for early education.

She wrote plenty of columns about Mitt Romney’s dog, who she said had been “strapped to the roof of a car.” (Inside a windproof kennel.) She even spent a chunk of last summer grossly misinforming the public about our low-income schools.

But in the 42 years since Nixon struck, Collins has had little to say about the need for early education, even though it addresses our biggest crisis. In part for that reason, it’s just as she said: “People, here we are.”

We were also surprised by Joan Walsh’s lengthy, detailed piece in Salon. “I write from the perspective of someone who very much believes in the wisdom of investing in preschool,” Walsh wrote, “and who also knows the obstacles to enacting large-scale programs.” Here’s where her perspective comes from:
WALSH (2/14/13): Back in the 1980s, I worked for the California State Assembly Human Services Committee, which oversees subsidized childcare and preschool programs as well as welfare-to work programs. Later I consulted with an Oakland non-profit surveying the landscape of best practices in reducing urban poverty to promote what worked best.

Back then, and to this day, high quality preschool programs seemed to be the single best intervention to break the cycle of chronic poverty. And yet despite, or maybe because of, our many national, state and local efforts to build such programs for every family, truly large-scale success is elusive.
Sounding quite a bit like Collins, Walsh said that high quality preschool programs “seem[s] to be the single best intervention to break the cycle of chronic poverty.” Apparently, it has seemed that way to Walsh since the 1980s. That said, we don’t recall seeing Walsh write about this topic before (we could be wrong). We don’t recall reading about high quality preschool in Salon in the years when Walsh was editor.

Or about low-income schools in general. When has Salon ever discussed such schools?

Question: When’s the last time the ranking liberal world pushed for high quality preschool? Expanding our search, when’s the last time the ranking liberal world discussed low-income schools at all?

Early in her piece, Walsh explained why preschool doesn’t get discussed. We think what follows is fantasy:
WALSH (2/14/13): President Obama’s plan for universal preschool is as ambitious and crucial as his healthcare reform commitment, maybe more so. Citing research showing that investing a dollar in preschool saves $7 in the course of a child’s life, by improving their chances at finishing high school, avoiding early parenthood or prison, going to college and/or getting and holding a job, the president declared Tuesday night: “Let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”


Obama’s new crusade demands the question: If preschool is such a great value, why haven’t we made it a priority before?

The easy answer is that American social policy is rarely inspired by research. But the more honest answer is that preschool campaigns often get derailed by debates over how to provide it, and to whom, and at what cost. Preschool can seem like a social policy silver bullet: It can help kids do better in school, it can provide child care support for parents who need it; it can even serve as an employment program for teachers, aides and family support professionals, maybe moving some unemployed parents who need support for their kids into the workplace themselves.

The very fact that preschool proposals seem like the answer to so many social problems has led to a vexing outcome: they can be derailed by questions about costs, goals and turf, thus solving no problems at all. They are often oversold (the president may be making that mistake already.) “Can universal preschool solve all our problems?” a National Journal headline blared Thursday morning (a dumb headline on a smart piece). Of course, the answer is no–but done the right way, it can solve some of them.
It may be true that preschool proposals “can be derailed by questions about costs, goals and turf.” But when has any major liberal ever made a preschool proposal? When has any major liberal discussed preschool on TV? Expanding our search, when has any major liberal ever discussed low-income schools in any way? When have we ever discussed the many deserving children (like Damien Fowler, age 4) encompassed by this sprawling topic?

How do progressives fail to gag while reading that column by Collins? In fairness, Collins is right on several scores.

It’s true! Obama will be working “against great odds” if he ends up trying “to do something for 4-year-olds.” But in large part, those odds will stem from forty years of liberal indifference—from our apathy, our vast disinterest. From our moral preening.

We liberals pretend to care about minority kids. This still forms part of our tribal identity, an identity which is built around the joy of calling the other tribe racist.

In truth, we don’t care about such kids at all; nothing could be more plain. To understand our tribal loathing and the great odds Obama would face, let’s return to a topic we’ve often discussed: The nation’s rising NAEP scores.

In this recent blog post, Paul Krugman cited an interesting part of a recent David Brooks column. “[A]s far as I know not a single major player in [our budget] debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides,” Brooks wrote.

When we read that passage by Brooks, we wondered if we had ever switched sides on some topic based upon data. We thought of how amazed we were when, if we might borrow from Keats, we first star'd at the nation’s NAEP scores.

We’ll guess this was roughly ten years ago. For about the millionth time, we had seen the federally-run National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) described as the “gold standard” of educational testing.

We decided to go to the sprawling NAEP site to see what it contained.

We were stunned by what we saw there. We saw that, according to this gold standard program, black kids had been making large progress in reading and math down through the years. (Hispanic kids too.)

Like everyone else who reads newspapers, we had never heard this. Like everyone else who reads newspapers, we had endlessly heard that our schools were awful and getting worse—that absolutely nothing was working.

Based upon our own teaching experience, we had never thought that “standards and testing” were likely to help low-income students in major ways. We abandoned that presupposition after seeing those NAEP data, although we’ll still guess that the rise in scores is most strongly tied to other factors. (For one possibility, see Drum on lead abatement.)

That said, those “gold standard” scores are an incredible thing to behold. To our eye, those rising lines on NAEP graphs are gorgeous. A few years ago, Richard Rothstein captured the change in its most striking form:

As of 2007, Rothstein noted, black fourth-graders were scoring higher in math than white fourth-graders scored in 1992!

That progress, if real, is astounding. But thanks to the mountain of liberal indifference, the public has never been told. Very few people have ever heard that our low-income and minority kids seem to be doing much better in school.

This is one of the reasons why Obama will face great odds if he tries to sell universal preschool. To this day, the public is constantly told that nothing works.

Why would they want to pay for universal preschool if nothing else ever has worked?

Why do we liberals hate black kids so much? We often marvel at our cruelty—at the astounding indifference which is involved when we won’t bother ourselves to tell the public about those astonishing NAEP scores.

Go ahead—look at Damien Fowler, age 4. If those NAEP scores aren’t totally bogus, his older siblings are doing much better in school than their parents and grandparents did. (The same is true of America's white kids.) This should be a cause for hope. But the liberal world disregards children like Fowler so much that we can’t even move our big fat asses to let the public know.

If you watch The One True Channel, you will see a great deal of advocacy on behalf of certain groups which are currently favored by us liberals. Much of that advocacy is completely justified; it represents actual progress. But you won’t see black kids mentioned at all—unless such children live in Malawi, in which case Lawrence will rend your heart each year at Christmastime.

Manifestly, the liberal world just doesn’t care about black kids. We quit on black kids long ago; nothing could be more plain. For that reason, the business community in several red states has been working harder than we have to bring preschool to children like Damien Fowler.

Good for them—but you know how we are! When Obama mentioned this fact, we knew we had to find ways to deny it. Result? Maddow offered a clowning report designed to make us think that Oklahoma is leading the way because, if we might borrow from Jesus, they know not what they are doing. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/20/13.

What makes us liberals hate black kids so much? And since we enjoy the practice so much, should we drop R-bombs on our own heads? We wouldn’t recommend the bombs, but Obama will be facing great odds because of the decades of sloth and indifference we have brought to this topic.

That’s if he really plans to proceed—if he tries at all.

Tomorrow or Saturday—epilogue: Two talkers discuss Chicago


  1. Collins's lack of logic makes my head hurt. She likes Obama's proposal for universal pre-school. However, she ignores Head Start, which has provided pre-school education to poor children for many decades. Evidently Head Start has failed to allow poor children to become non-poor adults, because, according to Collin, "A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor."

    Her (and Obama's) solution to reduce class differences is to extend government pre-school to middle class and upper class children.

    I invite any poster here to explain how that makes sense.

    1. 1. Head start does provide some benefits. Children who participated in head start outperformed their siblings who did not participate.

      2. If head start were universal, there would be more political incentive to adequately fund it and ensure that the program uses the most up to date tools and methods.

      3. Universal preschool would be good for working parents (and the economy as a whole), whether or not it actually improves later student achievement.

  2. I think the key issue here is "upward mobility", the ability to move into a higher socioeconomic class than one's parents.

    Despite the persistent Horatio Alger mythology, upward mobility is rare in the US.

    Whatever benefits a child gains from preschool activities are averaged out over the next few years.

    I have no idea what is meant by the comment 'Citing research showing that investing a dollar in preschool saves $7 in the course of a child’s life..."

    Rich kids have advantages over poor kids every single day of their lives, advantages that can only be overcome with greater talent, harder work, and plain old good luck.

    1. Very true, and in many, many cases, greater talent, harder work and plain old good luck isn't enough to overcome those who were born on third base and thought they hit a triple.

      A grizzled old veteran told me as I was beginning my career that you need two things to make it in journalism: Talent and a famous father. And if you had a famous enough father, you didn't really need the talent.

  3. TDH is to be commended to the highest degree for his nearly singular effort to tell the truth about the inadequacy of efforts to reach kids whose parents or parent can offer almost no educational resources, including the absence of texts that teach grade level substance in the language with more appropriate vocabulary. The same commendation should go for his revelations about the truth of the NAEP scores, including the series on the data that changed my mind when it is analyzed properly with ethnic disaggregation: the generally excellent performance contra Collins and the journalistic establishment by the Texas school system.

    However, TDH will double down forever, regardless of its inaccuracy, on his insistence that liberal "indifference" explains the paucity of efforts for pre-school education since the days of liberal predominance in the early 1970s. First, we must assume he is demonstrating the gall to accuse black liberals of indifference to black kids, since he fails to distinguish them from the white liberals and they have also been handicapped in blasting this issue forward by the same nearly-insurmountable political barriers. Second, because he is determined to foment the narrative that all (other) prominent liberals are selfish and worthless assholes, and nothing but selfish and worthless assholes, he is incapable of grasping the difference between indifference and resignation and fear. One means a character attack, which TDH prefers for reasons that are unclear, the other identifying a common frailty which would be accurate (and well worth TDH's focus and criticism).

    I doubt that the Democratic platform has ever, for the last 50 years or so, failed to include pre-school education as one of its goals. I believe most liberals would have been vocally appalled had the party tried to drop it from the platform. (I doubt that you would find it in the Republican national platform.) But the politics have been stacked against it -- no chance whatsoever of its being passed as a Federal program -- and the liberal intelligentsia has faced an elite that, indeed, is indifferent to the issue. The fear part comes into play in refusal to tell the truth about progress in the schools. Rightly or wrongly, I'm sure some who would want to tell the truth but face an establishment totally hostile to those truths, believe either that it will not get published anyway or that it even would be a career-killer. (Who here would discount the possibility that an angry Michael Bloomberg could get virtually any newspaper reporter sidetracked to another beat, or an editor told never to publish such a thing or that writer again?)

    Accusing people of not caring when they fervently believe they do will not win any hearts and minds. It is a sure way to guarantee oblivion for a worthwhile issue in journalism. Why must there be character attacks on other people when it is so obviously counter-productive?

  4. urban legend, that you read and write so intelligently and inspirationally on TDH keeps me coming back. thank you.