Political perceptions of pre-k

Sara Mead of Bellwether Education Partners has an interesting blog post at Education Week that focuses on her views on how to overcome the political challenges facing the pre-k movement.  She is reacting to a quote from Joe Klein of Time magazine about President Obama’s State of the Union speech:

“When [President Obama] dealt with education, he eschewed the standard Democratic talking points about early-childhood programs like Head Start, which have become code words for spending more money on poor kids. Instead, he talked about accountability, which is code for breaking the stranglehold of teachers’-union work rules.”

Sara Mead argues that this means that to be more politically successful, the pre-k movement must embrace educational reform. This means talking about shutting down lousy early childhood programs, identifying measurable short-term results for early childhood programs, and holding programs accountable for achieving those results.

I agree with Sara Mead that pre-k programs should be held accountable for achieving results. Better measurement of results and greater accountability are together likely to considerably improve pre-k quality over time.  A better accountability system will also develop more knowledge about what works in pre-k. For example, we certainly need to know quite a bit more about what pre-k curricula are most effective. As I have outlined in a previous post, it is quite possible to do large-scale, ongoing, and rigorous monitoring of the results of pre-k programs.

Politically, I suspect that Sara Mead is right that pre-k proposals that have stronger accountability provisions will fare better in the current U.S. political environment.  (Such accountability provisions may not be necessary in other political environments, for example in other countries, as I discussed in a previous post.) In a political environment that is doubtful about any government intervention, any new proposed intervention must constantly strive to prove itself to skeptics.

However, this overlooks a very straightforward reaction to Joe Klein’s quote. If early childhood programs have become “code words for spending more money on poor kids”, there is an obvious response: design these programs so that they don’t just serve poor kids.  This is precisely the appeal of pre-k programs that are universal, or at least are broadly enough targeted that they serve middle-class families, not just low-income families.

Furthermore, as I have outlined in a series of posts, there is considerable evidence that the benefits of pre-k are significant for children from middle-class families. Therefore, there are both substantive and political reasons for supporting pre-k programs that are “spending more money on poor kids and middle- class kids.”

In addition, advocates of accountability, a category in which I include myself as well as Sara Mead, must face the difficult issue of how to evaluate pre-k’s effects on “soft skills”.  As outlined in a previous post, the long-term effects of pre-k are probably due more to pre-k’s effects on “soft skills” than “hard skills”. Hard skills are cognitive skills that might be measured by reading and math tests. We know a great deal about how to measure such skills. Soft skills include social skills, such as getting along with peers and teachers, as well as self-confidence and the ability to plan for the future. Such soft skills are harder to measure, and we know less about how to measure these skills.

In sum, for both political and substantive reasons, pre-k programs must demonstrate to skeptics that they are quality programs that provide benefits to a broad group of households. As my book Investing in Kids argues, it is also helpful politically to point out that such programs can increase the overall economic development of a state or local area. The broad benefits of a proposed pre-k program are at least as important as its commitment to strong accountability mechanisms. Finally, we need to be honest about the limits of current accountability measures, even as we strive to improve such measures.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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