Obama Education Reform: Pre-K Efforts Will Help End Child Poverty


President Obama recently released his education reform plan. Two critical components are incentives for all day kindergarten and additional funding for Pre-K and early childhood programs. A fair question raised by many critics is simply this: will these programs actually make a difference in the battle to end child poverty?

All day kindergarten has been, until recently, controversial. Research from the 1970s and 1980s showed that the results of day-long kindergarten were mixed; meaning all-day kindergarten was not a good investment of public money. Two big social changes have increased the impact of programs like all day kindergarten: the rise in the number of single parent households and the number of working poor families where both parents work. Even in the 1970s, the dominant household organization was a working father and a stay at home mother. The U.S. will never go back to that model, and anyone suggesting that this should be our goal is being completely unrealistic.

A summary of more recent research shows that all day kindergarten has an unquestionably positive impact on children, and especially children of at risk families. In fact, even in states where the entire state government is republican such as Michigan, all day Kindergarten has caught on. However, like all education programs, it is not the time in class but the quality of the programming that makes the difference. At least President Obama’s plan to incentivize states to offer quality all day kindergarten should receive bipartisan support.

Pre-k education programs are far more controversial. Many conservatives have actually spoken out against pre-k and early childhood programs, citing research that shows them to be ineffective or even damaging to children. From the same article in Education Liberty Watch, we see that "..researchers concluded that preschool has a positive impact on reading and mathematics scores in the short term and a negative effect on behavior. While the positive academic impacts mostly fade away by the spring of the first grade, the negative effects persist into the later grades."

Consequently, President Obama has a tough case to make with many people regarding the return on investment when it comes to dollars spent on early childhood programs.

What the administration has rightfully focused on its proposed reform plan is quality early childhood programs. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child has published several briefs, describing the parameters around what defines a quality early childhood program. The Harvard Center has shown that some programs have a return on investment as high as 9 to 1 in terms of positive economic impact versus dollars spent. Like any educational setting, the outcomes are determined by the quality of the staff and the appropriateness of the programming.

A recent meta-analysis on bestevidence.org showed that highly effective programs have significant impacts, while others show no difference from control groups who did not attend these ineffective programs. More time in a school setting des not correlate with better outcomes. It is most certainly the quality of the program that matters most, and these impacts appear to be lifelong.

It is one thing to identify savings in terms of reduced consumption of services, less likely to repeat a grade, etc. However, the open question is still, will these focused programs truly help to reduce childhood poverty? The Center for American Progress had published an article in 2011 highlighting the effects of childhood poverty. For example, children from poverty are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, ensuring that the cycle of childhood poverty will continue into the next generation.

However, participants in high quality childhood education programs such as the High Scope Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan were significantly more likely to graduate from school, stay out of jail, and break the cycle of poverty. Early childhood programs will help end childhood poverty not by somehow raising the status of children currently in poverty, but by helping these child break the cycle of poverty through greater success later in life. High risk participants of high quality early childhood programs are much more likely to escape poverty, guaranteeing a better life for themselves and the next generation.

The tough sell for the Obama plan will be helping the current Congress to understand the difference between block grants for programs with no accountability and targeted funding for high quality programs, which have high returns on investment.