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Published: Saturday, February 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Do preschool programs pay off for society?

"In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children -- like Georgia or Oklahoma -- studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own."
-- President Barack Obama, State of the Union address, Feb. 12, 2013
"In states like Georgia that have made it a priority to educate our youngest children, states like Oklahoma, students don't just show up in kindergarten and first grade more prepared to learn, they're also more likely to grow up reading and doing math at grade level, graduating from high school, holding a job, even forming more stable families."
-- President Obama, remarks on early childhood education, Decatur, Ga., Feb. 14. 2013
There's a subtle difference in these two statements: the reference to "studies" is missing from the president's speech in Georgia. In other words, the second statement is more of an opinion, rather than a stated fact.
Coincidentally or not, the president's rhetoric was tweaked after we asked the White House for documentation on those studies -- in particular, an explanation of what research showed that the children in states receiving preschool education were more likely to hold a job or form stable families.
Let's look at what's going on here.
Obama on Thursday unveiled a proposal to greatly expand pre-K and other early childhood education programs. As a White House statement put it, Obama believes that "high-quality early education provides the foundation for all children's success in school and helps to reduce achievement gaps."
We take no position on whether that is correct; there is significant debate about the long-term effectiveness of pre-K programs, though the issue is notoriously difficult to study. (Early advances, for instance, could be undermined by poor elementary school teaching.) Each side can point to studies that make its case.
The most famous studies involve the Perry Preschool Project, in Ypsilanti, Mich., and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, in Chapel Hill, N.C. Low-income African American children were randomly selected for high-quality preschool programs, and then their school performance, jobs and other life events were tracked over the years.
The initial expenditure was high -- $90,000, in today's dollars, in the case of Abecedarian -- but studies indicated that the investment paid off over time: The children who received intervention earned more money and committed fewer crimes than those who did not receive preschool education.
These studies carry weight because they were started decades ago -- in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively -- and the outcomes have been carefully tracked. But they were also relatively small programs, with only about 100 children participating in each. Another program, known as the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, has plotted the lives of some 1,500 students, with similar results, but it did not involve random selection.
The big question is whether these results would carry over into larger, less costly state-run programs. The federal government already offers Head Start for low-income children -- at a cost of about $8 billion a year -- and the results have been mixed.
"There were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices," concluded a report released by the Obama administration last year that tracked children in Head Start over time. "The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children."
Let's look again at Obama's State of the Union statement: "In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children -- like Georgia or Oklahoma -- studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own."
The Georgia program, for instance, began in 1996, and the Oklahoma program in 1998, meaning the oldest participants are now only 20. So how does the president know such state programs mean these children will be able to hold a job or have stable marriages?
He doesn't. The White House could provide no studies backing up his claim, so we can only assume he is jumping to the conclusion that the results in Perry and Abecedarian would be easily replicated.
But that may be a risky assumption.
"Generalizations to state pre-K programs from research findings on Perry and Abecedarian are prodigious leaps of faith," wrote Grover Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, last month. "Perry and Abecedarian were multi-year intensive interventions whereas state pre-K programs are overwhelmingly one-year programs for four-year-olds." He also noted that today's students face different the circumstances than those of 30 to 40 years ago.
The Oklahoma program has been carefully studied by Georgetown University's Center for Research on Children in the United States (CROCUS). William Gormley, co-director of CROCUS, agreed that the president's statement went too far:
"If I had been crafting this sentence, I would have worded it differently. Our Oklahoma research to date shows some persistence of cognitive gains through at least 3rd grade. This is cause for celebration. Extrapolations that link the Oklahoma data set (kindergarten test scores) to other data sets (adult earnings as a function of kindergarten test scores in other sites) also suggest that long-term economic gains are highly likely. This is encouraging, but not definitive.
"Other reputable studies -- of the Perry Preschool Project and the Chicago Parent Centers, for example -- have documented precisely the kinds of positive long-term changes that President Obama referred to in his State of the Union message.
"That said, the premise of your question is correct: we do not yet know for sure whether the phenomenal short-term gains from a high-quality preschool program that we have documented in Tulsa will translate into equally phenomenal long-term gains."
Bentley Ponder, director of research and evaluation at the Georgia pre-K program, agreed that the president could not be citing a study that involved the Georgia program.
"The study we just completed on Georgia's Pre-K Program looked at children during their pre-K year and found that they made gains in all domains of learning - language and literacy, math, general knowledge and social skills," said Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, senior scientist at the FPG Child Development Institute. "Further, we found that children who were Spanish-speaking dual language learners made gains in both English and Spanish, even though the primary language of instruction was English."
"President Obama cited an array of long-term effects and a 7 to 1 return on investment that can only be attributed to the high-quality preschool program studied by the High Scope Perry Preschool Study, and I wish he had been explicit about that," said Larry Schweinhart, president of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, who has conducted research on the Perry Preschool Project since 1975. He noted that the president did not explicitly say the studies were in Georgia or Oklahoma, "although I agree that that is a reasonable inference."
In the State of the Union, the president went too far by rhetorically linking the long-term results of a handful of unrelated programs to state pre-K programs that he wants to tout. There is evidence of near-term gains from such state programs, but not yet the long-term impact claimed by the president.
The president's phrasing in Georgia was better, as his statement then was in the realm of opinion, not facts attributed to "studies." But the State of the Union was the marquee speech, heard by millions of Americans. That's when his phrasing should have been the most accurate.

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