All Commentary
Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Children’s Real Enemy

Does Government Involvement or Oversight of Preschool and Child Care Improve Their Quality?

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank based in Raleigh, North Carolina, and one of the authors of a new report on children and public policy from the Pacific Research Institute.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” or so the old saying goes. For the past three decades, politicians and policymakers attempting to close the gaps in educational achievement and social well-being among American children have taken this sentiment to heart. From the creation of Head Start in 1965 to various preschool and child-care programs today, government at all levels has attempted to ameliorate or eliminate social problems such as poverty, illiteracy, crime, drug abuse, out-of-wedlock births, and welfare dependency by “investing” in early childhood education. The case for such programs has been seductive. Why not inoculate youngsters against these social pathologies with a preschool program, much as public-health departments inoculate youngsters against viral or bacterial pathologies?

In reality, the public-health model has little relevance for early childhood development. The wide range of influences on young minds has proven resistant and sometimes impervious to government alteration. Head Start and other preschool programs aren’t “miracle drugs” that can overcome the effects of poor parenting, poverty, and educational malpractice in the public schools.

Nor is an institutional setting the preferred means of caring for preschoolers in most American families. Census data show that nearly three-quarters of all preschoolers are still cared for by parents or relatives at home, rather than in the day-care centers that benefit most from the new government initiatives. It is, in other words, impossible for preschool models, day-care subsidies, provider training, and new regulations to improve the early childhood development of the many children who will never set foot in a day-care center or preschool. What they and other children need are not new government programs but tax relief to allow families to keep more of what they earn and to make their own investments in their children’s development.

Head Start

The granddaddy of the government preschool movement is Head Start, a federal program that provides educational, medical, and social services to disadvantaged preschool children. The program originated in 1965 as an eight-week summer program of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity. Over the next three decades, it grew into a $4 billion year-round program providing grants to local organizations to operate programs for about 800,000 poor preschoolers.

There are four major components to Head Start: (1) education, (2) health care, (3) parent education, and (4) social services. Local programs provide these services in surprisingly different ways and levels of quality. Indeed, reports by the Inspector General’s Office in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have found that many programs fail to deliver the services for which they are paid. Many children fail to receive scheduled immunizations despite spending two or more years in Head Start.

Even given the spotty nature of local Head Start performance, few analysts dispute that children who leave Head Start and enter elementary school exhibit some advantages over their non-Head Start peers in academic and socio-emotional measures. Unfortunately, these benefits do not last long. By the third grade, according to the federal government’s own analysis of Head Start studies, the benefits “fade out.” That is, disadvantaged youngsters with Head Start experience become indistinguishable from disadvantaged youngsters without such experience. Whatever Head Start is, it does not qualify as inoculation against educational or social maladies later in life.

Still, defenders of Head Start and similar government programs continue to argue that an early taxpayer investment can save significant costs in the future. They base their case not on Head Start itself but studies of a handful of university experiments. The most famous of these is probably the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan. In 1962 the preschool selected 123 poor children. Half the group was given two years of preschool instruction and services, two-and-a-half hours a day, five days a week. The other half took part in no preschool program. Both groups of children were then tracked throughout their academic careers and into adulthood. The Perry students demonstrated not only significant short-term gains, as do typical Head Start participants, but also long-term gains. About two-thirds of the Perry group graduated from high school, compared to 50 percent of the control group. Similarly, while 51 percent of the control group had been arrested by age 19 for some crime, fewer than a third of Perry graduates had.

When the Perry results were first reported in the mid-1980s, they made a huge public relations splash. Child advocates began arguing that a dollar spent on preschool would save taxpayers $5 in future economic, education, welfare, and crime costs—all based on the Perry experiment. Even as pressure mounted to expand Head Start, and several states began their own early childhood initiatives, few bothered to ask why the Perry results differed so radically from those of Head Start programs themselves.

In fact, studies of the Perry Preschool and a couple of other university experiments don’t offer much guidance about the probable efficacy of government preschool. “These programs were conducted under ideal circumstances,” wrote Congressional staffer Ron Haskins in a seminal article in The American Psychologist. “They had skilled researchers, capable staffs with lots of training, ample budgets. . . . It seems unwise to claim that the benefits produced by such exemplary programs would necessarily be produced by ordinary preschool programs conducted in communities across the United States.”

Another major difference between Perry and Head Start is obvious: studies of the Perry project and a few similar projects track only a relative handful of students, a few hundred, through their academic and early adult lives. Studies of Head Start, on the other hand, involve hundreds of preschool programs and thousands of children. When dealing with complex issues such as child development, researchers and policymakers must do better than hype a few best cases.

Smart Start and Success by Six

Fueled by Head Start’s public-relations successes in the mid and late 1980s, several states began designing their own early childhood development initiatives in the early 1990s. With names such as “Smart Start” and “Success by Six,” these programs mixed a variety of approaches to assisting families with preschoolers, including grants to local service providers, day-care subsidies, home visitation by nurses or social workers, child-care referral activities, and parent-education efforts. In a 1998 report, Columbia University identified eight states as having the most “comprehensive” initiatives in the early childhood area. They included Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia. The Smart Start program, created by North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt in 1993, serves as a useful case study for how these programs have developed and what impact they have on children’s lives.

Hunt made Smart Start the centerpiece of his election campaign in 1992. He promised not a traditional entitlement program but a public-private partnership to link preschool children with service providers in local communities. Very quickly, however, it became clear that Smart Start was in fact a government program paid for almost entirely by taxpayers and routing most dollars to service providers rather than parents. When fully funded, the program is expected to cost nearly $350 million a year—larger than entire departments of North Carolina’s state government. Just to put that in perspective: Smart Start will consume more resources than the state’s law enforcement budget and almost as much as the state’s entire judiciary.

Smart Start may well be the most successful public-policy initiative ever hatched in North Carolina—if one defines success as getting good press. Not just in North Carolina but nationally, the program has received lavish praise for making an investment in the future of the state. Most recently, the program was the recipient of the 1998 Innovation in American Government Award from Harvard University and the Ford Foundation. “North Carolina is making an effort for early childhood education that includes county by county, group after group, and business after business, and is making significant headway,” said selection committee chairman David Gergen, former Clinton aide and editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report. Other kudos for Smart Start have come from national magazines such as Working Mother and Good Housekeeping.

After such heady praise, many state leaders seem to have conveniently forgotten the purpose of Smart Start—to make a long-term impact on the education and social development of children. With only four years of operation under its belt, Smart Start cannot yet be judged conclusively on this criterion. Indeed, it is striking how many plaudits the program has received without a shred of evidence that it is achieving its stated goals. Like Head Start, Smart Start has been successful on a political level without establishing a demonstrable record of success.

The Early Evidence

Unfortunately for its boosters, the early evidence that does exist does not bear out Smart Start’s reputation. Two studies, neither conducted by critics of the program, have found it not to be the public-private partnership Hunt promised in 1993, nor is it likely to be a successful “investment” in early childhood development.

In August 1998, North Carolina State Auditor Ralph Campbell released a “Special Report on the Smart Start Program,” which included financial data for FY 1995–96 and 1996–97. While Campbell’s office found some areas of improvement, particularly in the number of management problems at local partnerships, it concluded that Smart Start still operates without a uniform fund accounting system, without a uniform contract management and monitoring system, and without sufficient oversight by its nonprofit parent, the N.C. Partnership for Children.

Perhaps most significantly, the audit found that Smart Start continues to fail to meet its private fundraising goals. For 1996–97, the program received $3.9 million in cash and in-kind contributions, far less than the $6.7 million in private funds required by the state legislature in exchange for past increases in taxpayer support. Even this standard wasn’t particularly high; the legislature mandated only that Smart Start raise $1 in private funds for every $10 in taxpayer funds. Given the early rhetoric about Smart Start not being a government entitlement program and instead being a public-private partnership, the failure to meet the legislature’s low fundraising target represents a major disappointment. Indeed, the N.C. Partnership for Children says it has exceeded the fundraising goal for 1997–98—but only after liberalizing the definition of fundraising to include gifts made directly to day-care centers, not to Smart Start itself. How much private support would flow to the centers anyway? It is impossible to tell.

With regard to the benefits of the program, only one study provides any useful information. It was conducted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools and Smart Start of Mecklenburg County and was released in July 1998 by the N.C. Partnership for Children. In examining the educational impact of Smart Start on kindergartners in Mecklenburg County, the state’s most populous county, it surveyed 5,715 parents. It used different assessments to provide educational data. One, the Kindergarten Awareness Profile (KAP), is given to incoming students to identify potential learning difficulties. The other, the Kindergarten Assessment in Reading and Mathematics (KARM), is a periodic observation of academic achievement given by classroom teachers. The results are combined at the end of the year and serve as a measurement of student achievement.

In brief, no statistically significant relationship was found between the KAP and KARM results, on the one hand, and participation in the Smart Start program for fewer than three years, on the other. That is, preschoolers who spent a single year in a Smart Start-supported day-care center or simply received a Smart Start-sponsored vision or hearing screening did not perform any better on the KAP screening or the KARM achievement assessment than preschoolers who did not. For those who spent three years in a Smart Start-supported center, the study did find a statistically significant—but small—difference. On the KAP screening, long-term Smart Start kids scored an average of 93.35 (on a scale of 0-102) versus 91.05 for kids without that experience. On the KARM, the point difference was similar: 32.18 versus 29.83.

Smart Start proponents trumpeted that last result as evidence of the effectiveness of the program. “Smart Start is working in Mecklenburg County and this study proves it,” said Ashley Thrift, chairman of the N.C. Partnership for Children. He is mistaken. The Head Start experience shows that the difference between participating and nonparticipating preschoolers will shrink as both groups go through the same schools. A large gain in early educational outcomes for participants might be sustained over time, but a tiny one—two points on a test—is unlikely to persist. It is certainly not a worthwhile return on the huge investment that North Carolina taxpayers have made in the Smart Start program since 1993.

Even the small jump in scores for long-term Smart Start participants may be suspect. After all, it is difficult if not impossible to rule out “selection bias” in such a study. That is, parents with other characteristics likely to improve student performance are probably more likely to get their children involved in Smart Start-type programs than are their peers. This effect may be small, but it would not take much to eradicate the small outcome differences the study found.

A Different Approach

There is no great mystery as to why government programs like Head Start and Smart Start don’t provide the long-term benefits they promise. Two or three years of preschool are unlikely to make an indelible impact on children who will spend far more time with their parents and in what are often mediocre (or worse) government schools. There is no magic wand that can wish away the effects of poverty, family breakup, and educational malpractice. There are no shortcuts in tackling these problems, nor are many of them amenable to government solutions at all.

On this point, the comments of four academic researchers who support Head Start are particularly salient:

If we wish to “close the gap” between advantaged and disadvantaged children, educational services need to go beyond the provision of short-term interventions. Policy decisions that support the expansion of preschool programs without addressing the more fundamental question of trying to alter what happens to disadvantaged children in our nation’s public schools are shortsighted. (Valerie Lee, et al., “Are Head Start Effects Sustained?,” Child Development. vol. 61, 1990, p. 505)

Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that government involvement or oversight of preschool and child-care arrangements will improve their quality. It is not obvious, for example, what specific factors make an early childhood program effective, so governments have little to go on in trying to mandate improvements. As the National Research Council stated in 1996, researchers do not know what constitutes the “basic ingredients” of high-quality child care. The council observed that “what is developmentally beneficial for one child may not be so beneficial for another.”

The few studies that do exist suggest that the impact of day care and preschool, positive or negative, on a child’s readiness to learn is difficult to demonstrate. Only 1.3 to 3.6 percent of differences among children in cognitive and language performance has been significantly linked to child-care factors; the vast majority of such differences among students when they enter school can be linked to factors such as family income, mother’s vocabulary, and family environment.

If policymakers really want to help all children grow and develop, the most important task is to alleviate the tax burden on families.

  • John Hood is a former president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in North Carolina, and author of The Heroic Enterprise: Business and the Common Good (Free Press).