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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Gail Collins, "How Preschool Got Hot": Saving America From Its Death Spiral

So "pre-k" is the latest flavor or the month, intended to save America from its socio-economic death spiral. Good luck!

In her latest New York Times op-ed entitled "How Preschool Got Hot" (, Gail Collins picks up on this trendy topic. Her opinion piece begins:

"All of a sudden, early childhood education is really, really popular. Everybody’s favorite. If early childhood education were an actor, it would be Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep. If it were a video game, it would be Candy Crush or Angry Birds, minus the spyware.

The other night at the State of the Union speech, President Obama mentioned 'high-quality early education' and John Boehner applauded. Boehner applauded early education! Paul Ryan likes it, too. Prekindergarten is so in, the guys on 'Duck Dynasty' would probably have a good word for it.

Kudos, guys! We certainly don’t want to complain about this. 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."

Ah yes, there's always a price tag attached, particularly at a time when state and federal debt have reached the stratosphere. Collins's conclusion, which addresses the matter of money:

"It’ll be a huge number of kids, and the classes have to be really small. Also, the teachers have to get much better pay. They go into the business out of love, but when you are talking about medial salaries of $27,000 a year, sometimes love is not enough. All in all, we’re talking about a ton of money.

So here’s the question: How much of the new enthusiasm for early childhood education is real, and how much is just an attempt to dodge the whole inequality debate? Maybe we could agree that no politician is allowed to mention pre-k without showing us the money."

Of course, Collins, who is the founder of the Bonbon School of Journalism which is best practiced from a cushy couch, doesn't mention the "Head Start Impact Study" (see:, which found:

"Head Start has benefits for both 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in the cognitive, health, and parenting domains, and for 3-year-olds in the social-emotional domain. However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole."

But not to worry, smiley Nicholas Kristof addresses this concern in his New York Times op-ed entitled "Pre-K, the Great Debate" ( (my italics):

"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.

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.

. . . .

When experts weigh these benefits against short-term costs, preschool for at-risk kids from low-income families more than pays for itself. (It’s not as clear that this is as true for middle-class kids.) When we have kids growing up in poverty and homes without books, we end up paying one way or the other. We can invest in preschool today (about $8,000 per child per year), or in juvenile detention tomorrow (around $90,000 per child per year)."

But allow me to play devil's advocate: Does every child who does not get the benefit of Head Start end up in juvenile detention? And if the parents of middle class children also demand the same benefit, who is going to foot this hefty bill, running into the hundreds of billions of dollars each year? Ultimately it boils down to a nasty cost-benefit analysis for Kristof's "often" and "more likely." How "often"? How much "more likely"?

Might it not be better, i.e. more apt to yield positive results at a lower cost, to attack the problem at its core, i.e. make a better effort to address poverty in children's homes and crime and violence in their neighborhoods, while also attempting to address the collapse of the family unit in the United States?

I do not have the answers, but I am convinced that pre-K will not come close to providing a panacea for America's burgeoning socio-economic ills.

1 comment:

  1. Trendy? Gail fails to mention that a large percentage of these pre-K attendees come from single parent homes.
    Foremost in the minds of the mothers is not the notion of giving their child a head start,but merely a place to park that child with a babysitter,while they attempt to eek out a minimal living.