Debunking Obama’s Early Education Dream

In today’s Reason Foundation column, I examine Senator Obama’s early education plan. I decided to look at how the one state that has been the model for universal preschool for over a decade, Oklahoma, was performing on the National Assessment of Education Progress. Curiously, in the twelve states that are scolded by preschool advocacy groups for failing to offer any state-funded preschool program, eight of the states score higher than Oklahoma on the NAEP’s fourth grade reading assessment and unlike Oklahoma all twelve have made measurable gains in fourth grade reading over the last decade. In the column below I argue that universal preschool is not the silver bullet Senator Obama is looking for.

Oklahoma is considered the current U.S. leader on the universal preschool front. The state has received rave reviews for its program and is the model that many states aspire to become. Oklahoma enrolls more than 70 percent of four-year-olds in preschool and is considered a “high quality” program by the National Institute for Early Education at Rutgers University and national preschool advocacy groups such as Preschool Now. Oklahoma’s program has strong curriculum, public school provision, and utilizes teachers with teaching credentials. Yet, the picture is not so rosy when one considers overall academic achievement in Oklahoma. After a decade of universal preschool, Oklahoma has not made gains on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) fourth grade reading test. The NAEP is the most objective test of academic performance for Oklahoma students because it serves as a quality benchmark for proficiency in reading and math. And it is a test against which all states can be evenly compared. The American Institutes for Research recently showed that the NAEP’s definition of proficiency was also very similar to the standard used in international tests, giving the NAEP a “world class” standing. As long as the NAEP standard is employed, proficiency in the United States has roughly the same meaning as in Europe and Asia. In reading, Oklahoma students remain below the national average and have actually lost ground since universal preschool was implemented. Today, Oklahoma students have lower reading scores than they did when universal preschool was enacted in 1998. In 1992, Oklahoma’s fourth graders had an average scale score of 220, on a 0-to-500 scale, on the fourth grade reading test. By 2007, after years of universal preschool, that reading score had fallen slightly to 217. In 1998, 19 percent of disadvantaged kids were proficient in reading on the NAEP. In 2007, after years off giving low-income children access to preschool, still only 19 percent were proficient in reading. For non-disadvantaged kids the news is worse. In 1998, 42 percent were proficient in reading, but in 2007 only 36 percent were.

In addition, I take on the long term economic benefits of universal preschool in Linda Jacobson’s article in today’s Education Week.

But some experts caution that the children served by the Chicago program and similar efforts were very disadvantaged, and that providing such services to middle-class families in universal preschool programs are unlikely to result in the same return on investment. “The biggest argument against the Chicago economic data is that it is still largely a ’boutique’ program that cost more and provided more services than most current universal and preschool programs,” said Lisa Snell, the director of education and child welfare at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a free-market-oriented think tank. “It is hard to imagine that current programs will have the same kinds of economic payoffs as the Chicago program.”