In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed a package of early care and education programs that included pre-Kindergarten for most children.
Head Start is the largest government program for young children, and opponents of publicly funded early care and education have taken Head Start as a model of what the president is proposing.
Moreover, they declare Head Start does not work. They say it is a government failure and should be scrapped, not expanded. They cite rigorous evaluations showing that by the third grade children who have attended Head Start do no better on school-related assessments than children who did not attend Head Start.
But there is more to this story, and good public policy is more likely to be created if the evidence is described comprehensively and in a balanced fashion.
There has been nearly five decades of research on the effects of pre-K programs, and fortunately the general results are rather similar across studies.
First, children do display fairly large improvements while in Head Start in most areas of development, including language, literacy and social-emotional behavior, compared to children who did not attend Head Start but may have attended other pre-K programs. In this sense, Head Start does promote school readiness, and it does so better than the other arrangements low-income parents are able to make.
Further, children are healthier because of Head Start's health program, and one study showed a substantial reduction in death rates of Head Start children 5 to 9 years of age. Also, some parenting practices improve.
Second, it is also true that numerous studies of Head Start and other pre-K programs show that such advantages seem to disappear after one to three years of predominately public schooling. In this sense, the opponents of Head Start are correct -- Head Start children are apparently no better off than non-Head Start children by the third grade.
It is not so much that Head Start children lose ground, rather it is that the non-Head Start children catch up as a result of attending school. So Head Start indeed gives children a "head start," but is such a head start worth it?
Third, yes, earlier does seem to be better. Children who enrolled in Head Start at 3 years of age improved more than children who started Head Start at age 4. More generally, studies show that children reared in poverty during their first 5 to 6 years have substantially poorer long-term educational, health and economic outcomes than children reared in poverty after 5 to 6 years of age. So the early years are very important.
Fourth, the real benefits of pre-K come later, both in school and afterward. Numerous studies show that children who attended Head Start and other pre-K programs have better school attainment, less need of special education, less grade retention, higher graduation rates, more years of attained education, higher lifetime earnings and less delinquency and criminal behavior, including fewer felony and property arrests. When advocates argue that Head Start and pre-K do work, this is what they are talking about.
It is not a contradiction that pre-K does not produce higher test scores by third grade while the same children display long-term benefits. One reason may be that such programs do not "raise all boats" short-term, but that they do prevent a number of children from "sinking" later.
Fifth, sinking later, even by a subgroup of children, can be very costly to those children and to society. Several studies have calculated the dollar value of benefits to society relative to the cost of Head Start. These studies show that for every $1 invested in the pre-K program, society gains from $3 to $9, with a rough average of $7 in benefits. These include children getting more schooling, better jobs and paying more in taxes while committing fewer crimes. Further, the benefits increase the longer studies follow the children.
Sixth, not every pre-K program will produce these benefits; they need to be of "high quality." Quality pre-K is not "baby sitting." It is serious education and social/emotional/behavioral learning through caregiver-child relationships, and teachers need specialized educational preparation and to be treated financially as professionals. Visit a recognized high-quality pre-K program and talk with teachers; you will be amazed as what goes into a first-rate program.
Of course, quality costs money. Government has a long history of seeking champagne benefits on a beer budget, and generally it gets what it pays for. We know that very expensive and some more modest programs produce about $7 of benefits for every dollar invested, so the greater the investment the greater the total value of long-term benefit.
Seventh, these long-term benefits have gotten the attention of important sectors in society that see pre-K programs as potentially helping to solve some issues they face. For example, some business leaders see better school performance, higher graduation rates and more years of schooling as contributing to a better workforce. Many jobs now require more skills than they formerly did and go unfilled because there are too few high school graduates and those with the skills needed to fill them. Pre-K might help.
The military is also interested. Three-quarters of age-eligible men cannot meet the three requirements for military service: Pass the mental test of basic skills, do not be obese and do not have a criminal record. The long-term benefits of pre-K could contribute to improvements in each of these criteria.
The law enforcement community and judicial system also see potential benefits of pre-K to society. States, including Pennsylvania, are building prisons to house increasing numbers of inmates at a cost of about $35,000 per inmate per year. But, as one observer noted, dealing with the crime problem by building more prisons is like creating more graveyards to cope with cancer -- it's too late and does little to nothing to prevent the problem. Indeed, the largest dollar benefit for pre-K derives from the savings in costs associated with crime.
President Obama's plan is much more than Head Start, even more than pre-K, and many details need to be worked out, not the least of which are quality assurance and financing. These issues will be contentious.
But let us begin the discussion with a balanced and clear understanding of what quality pre-K can accomplish for low-income children and society.
Robert B. McCall is co-director of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development and professor of psychology (www.ocd.pitt.edu).