Mission: PreK

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

Is an expansion of federal programs really the best way to improve the overall education of our youth?

Last month a prestigious line-up of retired admirals and generals emphasized the importance of early childhood education to America’s continued national security. “We know that early learning is a proven way to save scarce taxpayer dollars while laying the foundation for success of the next generation of Americans,” said Retired Major General James W. Comstock at the conference, which was opened by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“That is why the Early Learning Challenge Fund is so important,” continued Comstock. As part of the student loan bill, the Fund would provide $8 billion over eight years in state grants for early childhood education.

In its November report, “Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve,” Mission: Readiness (MR) concludes that 75% of the nation’s youth are unfit to serve in the military because of a crime record, inadequate education, unhealthy weight or other health problems. According to the report, which was the conference focus,

  • “Approximately one out of four young Americans lacks a high school diploma,”
  • “Even with a high school degree, many potential [military] recruits still fail the Armed Forces Qualification Test (the AFQT) and cannot join. About 30 percent of potential recruits with a high school degree take the test and fail it,”
  • “One in 10 young adults cannot join because they have at least one prior conviction for a felony or serious misdemeanor (and for five percent of young adults, trouble with the law is the only thing keeping them out),” and
  • “27 percent of young Americans are too overweight to join the military,” and
  • “When weight problems are added in with the other health problems, over half of young adults cannot join because of health issues.”

Where do these numbers come from? The footnote for each of the cited statistics—and others in the report—are attributed to a “personal communication” with a research analyst at the U.S. Military Accessions Command. When asked about the contents of this “personal communication,” Ted Eismeier, Communications Associate for MR, said via email that “With respect to your third query, the conclusions of our report are based on the evidence and statistics cited in the end notes, and we don’t think anything more needs to be added at this time…You can also check with the Department of Defense for anything beyond what’s cited in our endnotes.”

Eismeier is listed as a contributor to the report.

The original numbers may have come from the Lewin Group. On their website MR attributes the aggregate 75% statistic to a “Survey by the Lewin Group, 2005, for the U.S. Army Center for Accessions Research.”

A Lewin Consultant said that the data was not, in fact, part of a Lewin survey, but a study based upon government data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and others. She did not offer more details in time for publication.

“The absolute hard-core evidence is that high-quality early ed can increase graduation rates by forty-four percentage points,” MR National Director Amy Dawson Taggart told this correspondent in November. “It can decrease conviction rates for violent offenses as juveniles by seventy percent.” Taggart said these numbers were derived from the High/Scope Perry School Project.

However, according to CATO Institute education policy analyst Adam Schaeffer, “Three programs—the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, the Carolina Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers —provide the foundation for claims of huge preschool benefits and provide most of the weight behind the push for massive expansions in state-run preschool.”

He also argues that these three studies are methodologically flawed.

In 2004, Lisa Klein reported for the Harvard Family Research Project’s Evaluation Exchange that directors at the Joyce Foundation and Pew Trusts referred to these studies as the “triumvirate of impact studies” and “compelling for getting boards to support [universal pre-kindergarten].

The MR study utilizes each of these three studies, as well as the Syracuse University Family Development Research Program. MR’s parent “nonprofit corporate parent,” the Council for a Strong America (CSA), “does business as” (DBA) Fight Crime: Invest in Kids; FC received more than $6.2 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts between 2003 and 2008; it got a $250,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation in 2004.

“Fight Crime: Invest in Kids has played a critical role in winning billions in new federal and state investments in Head Start, pre-kindergarten, early childhood education, and other programs,” states the Fight Crime (FC) website.

A Pew employee confirmed that Pew gave MR $125,000 this year for its efforts, funds which were routed through the CSA.

CSA is also the nonprofit parent for Shepherding the Next Generation and America’s Edge.

Not surprisingly, each of these four sister programs supports expansions within early education programs and some have received grants specifically tagged for expanding federal and state funding for early education. This suggests that, perhaps, the organizations’ focus is more about expanding early education funding rather than the stated reasons of  “cut[ting] crime,” helping “build strong families and communities,” and national security.

But the question remains—regardless of the validity of these studies—whether government-sponsored prekindergarten is effective at scale.

Schaeffer argues otherwise: “All of the programs currently being considered for adoption or expansion are extensions of the government K–12 school system that has failed at-risk students for decades, and they bear little resemblance to the specialized, small-scale early intervention programs used to promote them,” asserts Schaeffer in his CATO paper. As for real-world examples, he writes that “Oklahoma, where state-funded and largely government-provided preschool has been open to low-income children for 18 years and all children for almost a decade, has slipped below the national average on math and reading scores for the fourth grade since it began expanding its government preschool program in the 1990s.”

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.