Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

Commentary

March 6, 2013

The faux empiricist

The least-plausible sentence in the English language is "We know this works," when those words are spoken by President Barack Obama.

He said them in his State of the Union address about early childhood education. President Obama called for universal preschool funded by the federal government in cooperation with the states. He cited "study after study" showing that investment in Pre-K pays for itself several times over by creating better outcomes for children.

He said this about two months after the release of a devastating report on the ineffectiveness of the federal government's already-existing $8 billion-a-year Pre-K program, Head Start. The study wasn't published by The Heritage Foundation. The Kochs didn't fund it. It was conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, which presumably doesn't have a right-wing agenda or bristle with hostility toward children.

Grover Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution calls the study "one of the most ambitious, methodologically rigorous, and expensive federal program evaluations carried out in the last quarter century." He might have added "one of the most inconvenient." Since it was released the Friday before Christmas, the best day of the year to bury bad news, even the president and his speechwriters might have missed it.

The HHS study concluded that "there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of third grade there were very few impacts ... in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children."

In other words, paraphrasing the president, "we know this program does not work." One would have thought that an elaborate, state-of-the-art study of Head Start would have merited mention in a speech advocating expansion of Head Start-like programs. One would have hoped a brave policy wonk would have piped up in the drafting process and told the president, "Uh, sir, what you are about to say about this issue is so selective as to verge on an outright lie."

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