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Kristof: The great debate about the value of pre-K

  • Educational assistant Melissa Sizemore, at right, helps Head Start preschoolers, from left, Jamauri Norman, Lamarion Anderson, Zynaida Ortega and Jaydn Clark as they cut out hearts for an art project Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, at Tucker Career and Technology Center in Marion, Ind. (AP Photo/ Chronicle-Tribune, Jeff Morehead)

Against all odds, prekindergarten is gaining ground.

President Barack 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).

"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 <NO1>also<NO>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.

Yet one obstacle is the misperception that early education has been debunked by researchers -#8212; when, in fact, it's the opposite. With so many programs and billions of dollars at stake, let's carefully review the evidence.

Advocates focus on the <NO1>stunning<NO>success of two tiny programs in the 1960s and 1970s, Perry Preschool and Abecedarian. Children from low-income families who participated in them were more likely to graduate from high school and get a job and less likely to end up on welfare.

Yet critics correctly note that programs often work when small but don't scale up. It's an open question whether those two programs would have an impact as great today if they were rolled out nationwide.

Republican critics focus on (and misunderstand) a major, well-designed project called the Head Start Impact Study. It found that Head Start produces educational gains that fade away. By third grade, when the research ended, there was little detectable difference between those assigned to Head Start and those in control groups.

That's disappointing. And that's why critics denounce Head Start as a waste of money.

Yet early 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.


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