Understanding the president’s pre-k plan

A jaw-dropping moment in President Obama’s state of the union address was his call for universal pre-k. It was a welcome surprise to us at CPE because we — along with many, many school and child advocates — have long promoted the short- and long-term benefits of high-quality pre-k.  But the SOTU raises the profile of pre-k to levels we could only dream of, which also brings out the skeptics.

By now, nearly everyone has read or heard the president’s pre-k argument:

“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 fact-checkers have been all over this statement. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler gave it 2 Pinocchios which on his accuracy scales translates to “significant omissions and/or exaggerations.” The analysts at factcheck.org likewise characterized the president’s claims as “misleading.”

Their judgment on this point relates to the president’s conflation of findings from different studies (all of which can be accessed from our pre-k page). Both Georgia and Oklahoma provide universal pre-k for 4-year-olds in their states. Studies have shown better short-term outcomes in elementary school. The long-term outcomes attributed to pre-k — chances for graduating high school, being employed, earning higher wages, etc — were the result of two well-known gold standard, longitudinal studies of two preschool programs: High Scopes/Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Abecedarian program in North Carolina. Both of these programs were comprehensive, targeted to poor children and very high quality.

What the fact-checkers have a problem with is that the president implies that the long-term outcomes have been demonstrated in Oklahoma and Georgia, although neither of those programs has been around long enough to show these results. In addition, neither program is as comprehensive or targeted as High Scopes and Abecedarian.

First, the fact-checkers are technically correct in their analysis of these particular studies.  Nonetheless, it is not wrong to infer from the large body of early education research that we can significantly increase the likelihood students will achieve the long-term outcomes if we provide them with high-quality pre-k experiences.  In this regard, the president’s case is the same that many researchers and advocates make, including Nobel Laureate and economist James Heckman. From where I sit, the fact-checkers overstate the president’s faux pas.

Joan Walsh has a really good analysis of the president’s statements which I recommend reading in full.


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