In a recent post, I pointed out that the pre-K program being presented to Kansas City voters is significantly different than the programs whose results they point to. We very likely won’t see the 13-to-one dollar return on investment for pre-K claimed by Mayor James and the Mid America Regional Council (MARC). We probably won’t even see the 13 percent annual return projected by economist James Heckman. The research on programs like the one being proposed in Kansas City—such as Head Start and the Tennessee state volunteer pre-K program—suggests these programs are large, expensive, and absolute failures.
The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched the Head Start program in 1965. It was expanded in 1981 and now has a $9 billion budget. Operated in Kansas City since 2005 by MARC, the program works to provide:
Comprehensive, high-quality birth-through-five early education services that facilitate healthy development including physical and social/emotional development and prepare children for school success.
Is it working? No. According to HHS’s own 2012 report, “after the initially realized cognitive benefits for the Head Start children, these gains were quickly made up by children in the non-Head Start group.” The report indicates this finding is similar to other studies published between 1995 and 2010.
A 2013 story in The Washington Post is a pretty even-handed write up of the value of pre-K. The author points out that extrapolating findings from the HighScope Perry study (an influential pre-k study of a small group of children in Michigan) to larger populations like Kansas City’s is highly questionable. In discussing the fade out of any initial Head Start benefit, the author wrote:
Some Head Start supporters, like Danielle Ewen, formerly of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), argue that this says more about K-12, and that what's likely happening is that poor quality public schools are actually reversing Head Start's gains.
If this is the case, children in the Kansas City Public School District can expect to see no long-term benefit whatsoever. Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution points not only to research on Head Start, but to large scale pre-K programs such as the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K (TVPK) program. In those follow-up studies, children in the control group soon outperformed those who received the preschool benefit.
Using the state test data and the full randomized sample, the evaluators report negative impacts for reading, math, and science scores at the end of third grade for children assigned to TVPK. The negative impacts on math and science are statistically significant and substantive: children randomly assigned as preschoolers to TVPK had lost ground to their peers who had randomly not been offered admission to the pre-K program.
Whitehurst revisits this in a 2018 paper in which he writes:
Unabashed enthusiasts for increased investments in state pre-K need to confront the evidence that it does not enhance student achievement meaningfully, if at all. It may, of course, have positive impacts on other outcomes, although these have not yet been demonstrated. It is time for policymakers and advocates to consider and test potentially more powerful forms of investment in better futures for children.
As we wrote in a previous post, policymakers in Kansas City may not be interested in confronting such evidence. This is especially true of Whitehurst’s observation that direct aid to families, such as the earned income tax credit (EITC), “produced substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than a year of preschool, participation in Head Start, or class size reduction in the early grades.”
Designing public policy is not easy. Neither is delivering effective education on a large scale. But we need to rise to the challenge of both. As it stands, the proposal of pre-K in Kansas City is unlikely to lead to significant long-term benefits for the children involved, especially if they matriculate into underperforming K-12 schools. A program with questionable efficacy that taxes the very low-income families it is meant to help seems, on balance, to make this plan more harm than help.