In President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, a charge was made for universal pre-kindergarten education. The President supported this platform with one statistic in particular:
every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on.
Andrew J. Coulson of the Cato Institute
This sweeping statement does not in fact refer to the typical return from federal or state pre-K programs. It refers to the findings from a single intensive 1960s early childhood experiment that served 58 children in Ypsilanti, Michigan—the High/Scope Perry preschool program. Out of the literally hundreds of preschool studies conducted in the past half-century, the Perry results are not representative and have never been reproduced on a national or even a state level. In fact, an earnest experimental effort to reproduce them for just a few hundred children at eight locations failed despite an annual investment of $32,000 per child, adjusted for inflation—far more than the President currently contemplates spending.
The president’s case for universal government pre-K singles out the unusually large positive effects of one tiny study—sometimes two or three—from scores of others that show little benefit, no benefit, or even significant harm to participating students. That sea of inferior results, moreover, is drawn in large part from …the federally-funded pre-K efforts of the past 47 years. Indeed the largest, best designed, most recent studies of federal pre-K efforts were published by the Obama administration itself: the Head Start Impact Studies . These studies find little or no net lasting benefit to federal pre-K. The Obama administration was apparently so worried about these findings that the most recent study was released on the Friday before Christmas—despite a publication date on its title page of October 2012.
What we have here, in other words, is a monumental act of cherry picking rather than an example of scientifically grounded policymaking.