An analysis of Charles Murray’s critique of Obama’s proposal for expanded pre-K

In response to a reader request, I am taking a closer look at a recent article by Charles Murray, entitled “The Shaky Science Behind Obama’s Universal Pre-K”. The article was published on February 20, 2013 by Bloomberg News. Charles Murray is a well-known political scientist who is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and has written widely on many topics, including his argument that many of the problems of poverty have to do with breakdowns in the American family.

Murray’s main point of the article is stated upfront:

“There are just two problems with [Obama’s proposal for expanded pre-K]: The evidence used to support the positive long-term effects of early childhood education is tenuous, even for the most intensive interventions. And for the kind of intervention that can be implemented on a national scale, the evidence is zero.”

My comment: This statement is incorrect, as I will demonstrate below. There is extensive evidence for expanded pre-K education, even for universal pre-K, from studies with large sample sizes of programs that have already been implemented on a large-scale.

Murray then goes on to highlight the Perry Preschool program and the Abecedarian program.  He criticizes these studies first on two grounds:

 “The main problem is the small size of the samples [for these two programs]. .. Another problem is that the evaluations of both Perry Preschool and Abecedarian were overseen by the same committed, well-intentioned people who conducted the demonstration projects.”

My comment: Murray chooses to focus on two programs with small sample sizes and with evaluations run by the researchers who set up the program. Murray overlooks preschool programs that have evaluations with large sample sizes that were conducted by outside researchers.

For example, if we want evidence for preschool’s long-run effects, we can look at the many evaluations done of the Chicago Child-Parent Center program. This program’s evaluations rely on sample sizes of over 1400 children, over ten times the sample size of Perry or Abecedarian. And these CPC evaluations were done by outside researchers. These evaluations of CPC have found strong long-run benefits, with an estimated benefit-cost ratio of over 10 to 1.

If we want to look at evidence for preschool’s short-run or medium-run effects, we have many studies with large sample sizes conducted by outside researchers. These include many studies of state pre-K programs conducted by researchers at the National Institute for Early Education Research. These also include studies of Tennessee’s pre-K program conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt, and studies of North Carolina’s program conducted by researchers at Duke. Finally, Bill Gormley and his colleagues have done a series of studies of the effects of Tulsa’s pre-K program.  All of these studies have found significant benefits of high-quality pre-K programs.

These studies typically look at short-term or medium-term effects of pre-K. However, they do project long-term benefits based on the expected relationships between short-run test score gains and long-term effects on adult outcomes.  For example, my recent study of Tulsa with Gormley and Adelstein projected that per dollar invested in pre-K, the present value of earnings would increase by $3 or $4.  These large benefit-cost ratios held for both half-day and full-day pre-K programs at age 4, and for both low-income and middle-class kids. This study relied on a large sample size of over 2500 children, which is over 20 times the sample size of Perry or Abecedarian. And none of us researchers have anything to do with designing or running Tulsa’s pre-K program.

Murray gets quite detailed about his concerns with the small sample size of Perry and Abecedarian:

“The main problem is the small size of the samples. Treatment and control groups work best when the numbers are large enough that idiosyncrasies in the randomization process even out. When you’re dealing with small samples, even small disparities in the treatment and control groups can have large effects on the results. There are reasons to worry that such disparities existed in both programs.”

My comment: What Murray overlooks is that common statistical procedures incorporate the imprecision from randomness with small sample sizes by making the confidence intervals for any estimated effects much larger. As Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman has pointed out, the small sample size and the resulting large confidence intervals mean that we have to have very large effects in Perry and Abecedarian to have any statistically significant results:

“Charles Murray has made that claim [about small sample size] most recently, and others make it too… [But] a small sample would actually work toward not finding anything. You have a limited number of observations. You would argue that the statistical observations would not be very great, and there would not be much of them. There are methods that account for the small sample size. Size doesn’t matter. It holds up. There’s a lot of robustness here…”

Furthermore, if one is worried about “insiders” doing the research, or about problems with the randomization process, it should be reassuring that Heckman, a prominent “outside researcher”, has reanalyzed the data from Perry and found that the results from the original research hold up, even after we account for some problems in the initial randomization process.  Heckman won his Nobel Prize in large part due to his research in how to overcome “selection bias” in evaluating the effects of public policies.

But Murray states that his main reason for thinking that Perry and Abecedarian only provide tenuous evidence is that he believes that they failed in a replication with a larger sample size:

“The most concrete reason for doubting the wider applicability of the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian effects is this: A large-scale, high-quality replication of the Abecedarian approach failed to achieve much of anything. Called the Infant Health and Development Program, it was begun in 1985. Like Abecedarian, IHDP identified infants at risk of developmental problems because of low birth weight and supplied similarly intensive intervention. Unlike Abecedarian, IHDP had a large sample (377 in the treatment group, 608 in the control group) spread over several sites assessed by independent researchers. IHDP provided a level of early intervention that couldn’t possibly be replicated nationwide, but it gave us by far the most thorough test of intensive early intervention to date.”

My comment: This is a strange critique of Obama’s proposal for expanding state-funded pre-K at age 4.  The IHDP provided home visits from birth to age 3, and provide high-quality child care/preschool at ages 1 and 2. However, the program did not provide preschool at ages 3 or 4, so it is hard to see how it is particularly relevant to a proposal to expand preschool at age 4.

Furthermore, the IHDP differed significantly from Abecedarian in many respects, including that Abecedarian included full-time child care and preschool from birth until the children were age 5. In addition, Abecedarian was targeted at high-risk children, whereas the IHDP was targeted at low-birth-weight children.  Although IHDP used the Abecedarian curriculum in child care, the rest of the program was quite different, and it had a very different target group, so it is hardly a close replication of Abecedarian.

In addition, Murray’s negative spin on the effects of IHDP are not shared by the research he cites on the program. As of the age 18 follow-up, these researchers conclude that

“The results of this phase of the IHDP suggest a persistent benefit of the intervention for the subset of HLBW [heavier low-birth-weight] participants and absence or even reversal of any intervention effect for the youth born weighing less than or equal to 2000 g.” 

In other words, the program seemed to have statistically significant positive effects on test scores at age 18 for the low-birth-weight participants who were closer to normal birth weights, and therefore more similar to the bulk of the Abecedarian sample.  The researchers went on to suggest that the lack of an effect of the program in the “Lighter Low-Birth-Weight” (LLBW) group (less than 2000 g) might be due to less participation by very low-birth-weight participants in the center-based child care/preschool program at ages 1 and 2.

In addition, the researchers note that as of age 18, they can’t really analyze educational outcomes, unlike other studies.  It also would be impossible at age 18 to directly estimate long-run earnings effects.

Furthermore, they note that in the HLBW groups, the point estimates for benefits in reducing special education costs are similar to the Chicago Child-Parent Center program, although because the HLBW group is less than half the overall sample, the estimates are imprecisely estimated and are not statistically significant. In the Chicago CPC program, these benefits in reducing special education costs are over $5,000 per participant.

The same statistical insignificance occurs for anti-crime effects for the HLBW group in IHDP, although the point estimates for reducing crime are about half those in the CPC study. In the Chicago CPC study, the anti-crime benefits alone had a present value of over $40,000 per participant, so the point estimates in IHDP also point to very large anti-crime benefits, although they are inconclusive because of low sample size.

In other words, it is fair to say that IHDP finds no evidence of long-run benefits for former child participants who started out as “lighter” low-birth weight infants.  But the program does find benefits for heavier low-birth-weight infants. But for this group, the study runs into sample size problems which make it difficult to provide statistically significant estimates for some effects even when the point estimates are consistent with large benefits.    

Finally, if we are going to evaluate early childhood programs in part for what they do for parents, IHDP does show significant effects in boosting maternal employment. When former child participant are age 18, over 15 years after IHDP stopped providing child care services, the mothers in the program group are significantly more likely to be employed. These effects at age 18 are only statistically significant in the lighter low-birth-weight group, for whom the effect is to boost employment rates when their child is age 18 from 73% to 86%, which is quite sizable.  In my examination of the benefits of the Abecedarian program in boosting state residents’ earnings per capita, I found that more than half the earnings benefits of the program came from effects in boosting parents’ earnings short-term and long-term. The Abecedarian program could pass a benefit-cost test based solely on effects on parental earnings.

Murray does concede that early education programs can work:

“The disappointing results from the IHDP don’t mean that early education can’t do any good. Other studies of good technical quality have convinced me that the best early education programs sometimes have positive long-term effects, though much more modest than the ones ascribed to Perry Preschool and Abecedarian.”

My comment: I agree that other preschool programs probably have smaller long-term effects than Perry and Abecedarian.  However, “much more modest” seems a bit of an over-statement.  Adult earnings effects for former child participants are about 19% for Perry and about 14% for Abecedarian (see Bartik, Gormley, and Adelstein for sources for these calculations). But adult earnings effects for the Chicago Child-Parent Center are around 7%.  And projected adult earnings effects for Tulsa for “free lunch” children are 7% for a half-day program at age 4, and 10% for a full-day program at age 4. Increasing average earnings by 7 to 10% is more than a modest effect.

Furthermore, benefit-cost ratios are not necessarily lower for programs other than Perry and Abecedarian.  Perry cost over $17,000 per participant, and Abecedarian cost almost $40,000 per participant, compared to a little over $5,000 per year per participant for the Chicago Child-Parent Center program, and around $4500/$9,000 for a Tulsa half-day/full-day program. (These figures are in 2005-2006 prices, and come from Bartik, Gormley, and Adelstein.  The CPC figures are for a one-year program, which was the pattern for 55% of the study participants, and the one-year participants had a higher benefit-cost ratio.) So programs that invest less get lower percentage earnings effects, which is not surprising.   In my calculations of effects on state residents’ earnings per capita, a universal pre-K program modeled after CPC, and similar to Tulsa, has a higher benefit-cost ratio than the Abecedarian program.   

But Murray goes on to claim that the best early education programs are not scalable:

“That leaves us with one last problem: None of those first-rate programs are replicable on a large scale. The kind of nationwide expansion of early education that Obama wants won’t have the highly motivated administrators and hand-picked staffs that demonstration projects enjoy, and the per-child cost of the interventions on the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian model are prohibitively high. If you’re going to have a national program, you’re going to get the kind of early education that Head Start provides.”

My comment: Murray doesn’t say what “other studies” he’s including beyond Perry and Abecedarian. However, this statement ignores that many “first-rate programs” that have been evaluated have already been implemented on a large-scale, without “hand-picked” administrators and staff. This includes the Chicago program, as well as the various state programs, such as the Oklahoma program that funds Tulsa’s program. If we’re going to have a national pre-K program for 4-year olds that is primarily focused on kindergarten readiness in terms of both cognitive skills and social skills, we can choose to model that program after these large-scale successful state and city programs.

Furthermore, these large-scale programs have less than one-third the cost of Perry and perhaps one-eighth the cost of Abecedarian (see cost figures above).  These costs are not prohibitively high. At about $5,000 per participant per year, I have estimated that a high-quality half-day pre-K program for 4-year-olds that was universal might cost $14 billion annually. This is around $50 per U.S. resident, which is affordable either for the federal government or for state governments.

In other words, a national program need not be modeled after Head Start in design or costs, but rather can follow these successful and affordable state and city models for pre-K services.  

Murray then goes on to summarize the recent third-grade follow-up results of the national Head Start experiment:

“Of the 47 outcome measures reported separately for the 3- year-old and 4-year-old cohorts that were selected for the treatment group, 94 separate results in all, only six of them showed a statistically significant difference between the treatment and control group at the .05 level of probability — just a little more than the number you would expect to occur by chance. The evaluators, recognizing this, applied a statistical test that guards against such “false discoveries.” Out of the 94 measures, just two survived that test, one positive and one negative.”

My comment: I’ve already commented extensively on Head Start in several blog posts. Without repeating all that analysis in full detail, there are two things that this summary overlooks:

First, the Head Start study is implicitly comparing effects of Head Start with the effects of whatever activities were engaged in by the control group.  This included preschool. According to the latest report, “Approximately 60 percent of the control group children participated in child care or early education programs during the first year of the study, with 13.8 percent of the 4-year-olds in the control group and 17.8 percent of the 3-year-olds in the control group finding their way into Head Start during the year.”

If some of these alternative preschool programs are highly effective state or local pre-K programs, this may significantly reduce any net Head Start effect. However, such a lower net Head Start effect does not imply that preschool doesn’t work compared to no preschool.

Second, this summary ignores that some good Head Start studies have found significant fade out of test score effects of Head Start, followed by a bounceback of benefits at older ages and adulthood. For example, Deming’s study of Head Start found that initial effects of Head Start on test scores at ages 5 and 6 faded by 60% by ages 11-14. But these effects were still consistent with much larger effects on adult outcomes, which would predict adult earnings effects of Head Start of about 11%.

Murray goes on to make a somewhat puzzling emphasis on one aspect of the Head Start study:

“One aspect of the Head Start study deserves elaboration. The results I gave refer to the sample of children who were selected to be part of the treatment group. But 15 percent of the 3-year-old cohort and 20 percent of the 4-year-old cohort were no-shows — a provocative finding in itself. When the analysis is limited to children who actually participated in Head Start, some of those outcomes do become statistically significant, though still substantively small. But keep in mind that we’re looking at selection artifacts: Children who end up coming to the program every day have cognitive, emotional or parental assets going for them that children who fail to participate don’t have. This means that if somehow the no-shows could be forced to attend, you couldn’t expect them to get the same benefit as those who participated voluntarily. If you’re asking what impact we could expect by making Head Start available to all the nation’s children who might need it, you have to make the calculation based on giving access to the service.”

My comment: Murray’s discussion here is puzzling.  We can adjust the Head Start estimates from what are called “Intent to Treat” (ITT) estimates to “Impact on the Treated” (IoT) estimates.  This basically divides the ITT estimates by the difference in the proportion participating in Head Start in the treatment group vs. the control group. This involves blowing up the estimates by about 40 to 50%.  For example, for the 4-year-old cohort, 80% of the treatment group ended up participating in Head Start, vs. 14% of the control group. The difference is 66% in participation in Head Start. We assume that the ITT estimates are solely due to this participation difference, and we therefore divide the ITT estimate for 4-year olds by 0.66 to get the effect of going from no Head Start to Head Start participation.

But contrary to Murray, this has no implications for statistical significance. It simply makes both the estimated effects and standard errors of those effects larger by some percentage. This is noted in the Head Start report on page 89: “There is no change in the statistical significance of the estimates.”     

Murray is right that “Impact on the Treated” estimates reflect effects for people who choose to participate in Head Start, and may not translate into effects on children forced to participate in Head Start. But it is unclear what relevance this would have to some hypothetical program that would expand voluntary access to Head Start. No one is proposing mandatory preschool.

Murray then summarizes his case as follows:

“The take-away from the story of early childhood education is that the very best programs probably do a modest amount of good in the long run, while the early education program that can feasibly be deployed on a national scale, Head Start, has never proved long-term results in half a century of existence.”

My comment: As stated above, there are many proven large-scale pre-K programs that are not Head Start and that show much more than modest benefits in the long-term.

In addition, Murray overlooks the many rigorous Head Start studies that show long-term benefits, including studies from Deming, Ludwig/Miller, and Garcia/Thomas/Currie. I’ve discussed this evidence in previous blog posts

Murray might respond that these other studies are not random assignment experiments. But they have very good comparison groups for Head Start participants. By “good comparison groups”, I mean that the non-participants in Head Start are likely to be quite similar in observed and unobserved characteristics to the Head Start participants.  Deming and Garcia/Thomas/Currie compare siblings who differ in Head Start participation.  Ludwig/Miller compare counties that differed in whether they received help from the federal government in preparing their Head Start application back in the 1960s, based on whether the county was below or above some poverty threshold for such assistance.   These are rigorous methodologies.

While random assignment would be ideal in a world with infinite resources and time, random assignment is expensive and cumbersome, and by definition takes a long time to get long-term results. We should not throw away the results of other rigorous studies just because they lack random assignment.

Murray then goes on to summarize his case more bluntly:

“Let me rephrase this more starkly: As of 2013, no one knows how to use government programs to provide large numbers of small children who are not flourishing with what they need. It’s not a matter of money. We just don’t know how.”

My comment: For all the reasons outlined above, I think this is incorrect.  Many state and local areas are already implementing large-scale pre-K programs that have good evidence for both short-run and long-run benefits.

Your average American state government, or local school district, can successfully carry out large-scale preschool programs. To do so, that state or local government agency must be willing to spend a reasonable amount per student, have well-trained and paid teachers, have reasonable class sizes, and have a good curriculum that focuses on both cognitive and social skills.  But if those elements of quality are present, pre-K programs can achieve significant short-run and long-run benefits both for former participants, and for our economy and society as a whole. 

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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14 Responses to An analysis of Charles Murray’s critique of Obama’s proposal for expanded pre-K

  1. cindy says:

    With all due respect, you are hardly objective when it comes to this subject. Your work is supported by powerful and wealthy foundations whose entire mission is to conduct research that supports and lobby’s for “universal” pre-k programs. In 2007–2008 you received a grant from Partnership for America’s Economic Success to do research on early childhood programs and economic development.

    Click to access bartikcv_Dec2012.pdf

    Partnership for America’s Economic Success is part of Pew Charitable Trust (PEW), PEW was THE driving force behind universal pre-k research and lobbying efforts. They funded NIEER.

    Click to access Votes%20Count.pdf

    All of your organizations work together very effectively to overgeneralize benefits despite the fact there is absolutely no research to support the claims that “universal” pre-k is the silver bullet.

    The research does, however, CLEARLY support targeted programs that are geared to the disadvantaged and at risk. Advocates, such as yourself, work tirelessly to create study after study to try and find evidence to gain support for “universal” programs. Sadly you’ve fooled many and all you’ve accomplished is to hurt the at risk kids who need help now.

    • timbartik says:


      With all due respect, you are simply making an ad hominem argument. You have not addressed the substance of the arguments in this post, and the research evidence that I cited in support of those arguments.

      I think it is useful for all of us to consider the possibility that someone has a different perspective, not because they are a paid shill, but because they have looked at the evidence, and come to a different conclusion. I think that is a more constructive attitude to take if you want a civil dialogue. The question is, who has the better evidence?

      In any event, the reason I take the positions I do is that I believe those positions are the most consistent with the weight of the research evidence. You have not provided any information whatsoever that would lead any reasonable person to rethink their position.


      Tim Bartik

  2. Pingback: linking the powerful lobby of UPK « Prioritize Pre-K

  3. cindy says:

    Fair enough.

    A little background. In my state, New York, they have been trying to fund a “universal” program for over 15 years. I repeat 15 years. The state can not afford to provide pre-k to all children. Instead they have instituted a lottery program, where need can not be a consideration. Kids get chosen by luck of the draw.

    So in suburban areas, there are waiting lists, which means kids who would benefit most can lose a spot to a family who can afford to pay for private quality early learning experiences for their children. High quality preschools are being forced to close their doors because they can’t compete with “free”. The preschool population has been shuffled from privately paid to publicly funded. They are not reaching more kids and the kids who would benefit most are still not attending the programs.

    On the other side, the city schools can’t fill all of their UPK slots because people need full day (child care) The current grant only covers half day. The governor has proposed an increase (via another separate grant) in pre-k funding that will offer full day programs but they will be targeted to the most needy kids and school districts. (The first rational step in early childhood policy I’ve seen our state take in years.)

    So in real life, “universal” pre-k is not attainable. To discuss some of the research you mentioned.

    The Perry Preschool Project, The Abecedarian Early Childhood Investment Project and The Chicago Longitude Study were preschool and intervention programs that targeted low income children. All of these programs serviced extremely disadvantaged and at risk kids and provided intensive interventions that today’s “universal” programs do not. These programs included “working with children and families” and “supplementing the family lives of disadvantaged children’ (quotes from John Heckman in a recent interview with Rachel Maddow)

    Tennessee is not universal, it serves economically disadvantaged children.

    North Carolina is not universal, it serves economically disadvantaged.

    Other programs Oklahoma and Georgia. – Maria Donovan Fitzpatrick of Stanford University did a study on Georgia UPK and concluded “The results of the study and its cost benefit analysis indicate scarce public funds may be used more efficiently by implementing targeted strategies in the design of Pre-K-programs.”

    Click to access 08-05.pdf

    Students in both Oklahoma and Georgia scored below the national average in 4th grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress. (NAEP) In fact, before Oklahoma instituted universal programs, their 4th grade reading scores were above the national average. They have been below the national average ever since. So in essence we have been robbing Peter to pay Paul and now Peter can’t ready.

    In her interview, Rachel Maddow asked John Heckman what the most important ingredient for early childhood programs are. He responded. “The most important ingredient -how you can replicate for disadvantaged h”ildren the kind of advantages that children from wealthier and upper class environments get.” He speaks of targeted pre-k not universal.

    Another study -The Early Years Institute. Windows of Opportunity (a look at preschool on Long Island)

    Click to access prekreport2009.pdf


    Maintain a Targeted Focus – “Until the State provides enough funding to serve all children, there should be a way to make sure that the children most in need of an early childhood experience receive services. The goal of universality should be retained since all children can benefit from a high-quality Pre-K. However, State policy could allow the continuation of certain TPK practices, or a process where districts choose children equitably, but give special consideration to children from low-income families, those with special needs, and those for whom English is not the language spoken at home. The move away from the targeted strategy has created much concern for districts, particularly wealthier districts with pockets of poverty, where the likelihood of the neediest children being chosen by the lottery is diluted by the large percentage of children who have ample resources”

    John Shonkoff, (From Neurons to Neighborhood) talks extensively about the effects of toxic environments on brain development. He made this statement, “The challenge is straightforward and clear: to move beyond the simple call for investing in the earliest years and to seek greater guidance in targeting resource allocation to increase the magnitude of return.”

    And where do we see the greatest return? By targeting resources to the most vulnerable.
    Nothing personal, just facts.

    • timbartik says:

      1. I might point out that 95% of my comment, and most of Murray’s article, have NOTHING to do with universal pre-K vs. targeted pre-K. Therefore, you are focusing on a minor point in my comment. The main argument of Murray’s article is that pre-K on a large scale, whether targeted or universal, does not have long-term benefits. That is what I was responding to. Therefore, your comment is not relevant to 95% of what I wrote. You might want to indicate whether you disagree or agree with Murray’s argument that even targeted large=scale pre-K is ineffective, which is the main issue here.

      2. As I have said to you before, much of your concern over universal pre-K seems to be related to your objection to the particular way in which New York has implemented universal pre-K. It’s not really universal pre-K when there are insufficient slots to meet demand. It’s not really universal pre-K when the program can not provide access to those who need wraparound child care for pre-K to make sense. And there is nothing inherent in the notion of universal pre-K that requires all or even most of the pre-K to be delivered via the public schools or other public providers. Universal pre-K can be delivered via charter school approaches or voucher approaches. And in fact there are a number of state and local areas in which this is done.

      3. It’s James Heckman, not John.

      4. You are right that Heckman, Fitzpatrick and others believe that the evidence supports targeted over universal pre-K. On the other hand, others (e.g., me, Steve Barnett) believe that the evidence supports universal over targeted pre-K. (By the way, I don’t think this is true for parenting programs. I think the evidence suggests for the Nurse Family Partnership that this program only works for disadvantaged parents.)

      5. As the main point of my comment on Murray was NOT concerned with universal vs. targeted pre-K, I think it is inappropriate to engage in an extended debate on this issue as part of this comment thread. There is more limited evidence on the effects of pre-K on middle-class kids precisely because the government and leading foundations have NOT sponsored research that examines the effects of pre-K on middle-class kids, whereas they have sponsored evidence on the effects of pre-K on low-income kids. To my knowledge, the most rigorous evidence that DIRECTLY looks at the effects of universal pre-K on middle-class kids vs. poor kids is my research with Gormley and Adelstein on Tulsa, which is linked to in the above piece. This research finds very similar effects of pre-K on kindergarten entrance test scores, and predicted adult earnings, for both low-income kids and middle-class kids.

      6. I actually agree with you that despite my Tulsa findings of similar test score effects and predicted earnings effects across income groups, it is probably the case that the social benefit-cost ratio for targeted pre-K exceeds that for universal pre-K. In fact, we discuss this in our Tulsa article. Pre-K causes similar dollar boosts to earnings of all income groups, but these gains are more socially and individually valuable to those in a low-income group. In addition, in the absence of firm evidence, it seems plausible that the anti-crime benefits of pre-K are greater for targeted pre-K.

      7. Where I differ from you is that although I think the social benefit-cost ratio for targeted pre-K exceeds that of universal pre-K, I think that the social benefits of expanding targeted pre-K to universal pre-K, if this is implemented in a high-quality manner, will exceed one.

      • cindy says:

        1.I believe my comment is extremely relevant to what you wrote. You are responding and critiquing to an article titled.”The Shaky Science Behind Obama’s UNIVERSAL Pre-k. In answer to your question, I support early childhood programs that help disadvantaged and at risk kids and their families. I support intensive early childhood intervention that help children growing up in toxic environments.

        2. I agree, a program is not universal when there are insufficient slots to meet the demand, however, this is what these programs are called and that is misleading the public. Even Obama’s proposal is not universal. When the discussion takes place and the research is cited, these important facts are often left out. A. it’s not universal and B. research supports targeted programs.

        Has any of your research taken into consideration the negative impact of these so called “universal programs? ie. lost jobs, wages, loss of income tax revenue, loss of rental income etc… because private preschools and childcare centers are being forced to close their doors. Have you considered the fact funding for childcare centers who support low income families has been cut when you do your calculations? Have you considered that fact that public schools are having difficulty maintaining K-12 programs?

        3. my mistake

        4. It’s Steve Barnett’s job to research, lobby for and support “unviersal” pre-k. Of course he defends universal over targeted.

        5. Again, I don’t feel I was inappropriate at all. There has been plenty of research cited to try and support middle class programs. That is why all the programs are looked at over and over again. To garner support for universal programs. Has any of the research considered how well the private industry has done with pre-k? Advocates would lead you to believe there aren’t many high quality private pre-k programs out there, I would disagree with this.

        6. no comment

        7.high quality = high cost. Who defines quality? The entire issue of quality is another debate in itself.

        The root of the problem. It is harder to sell target programs, so advocates push “universal’ Grove Whitehurst sums it up. “Coding the plan as “universal pre-Kindergarten,” he said, might be more attractive to taxpayers weary of any new government plans. “If we’re trying to convince the typical tax payer to support it, saying we want to tax you for your own and others’ pre-K is less of a hard sell than saying you’re going to pay for somebody else’s kids,” he said. “‘Programs for poor kids’ is a watch phrase.”

      • timbartik says:

        1. I’m glad to know that you support pre-K for disadvantaged kids. This implies that you mostly disagree with Murray’s article and agree with most of what I wrote. Despite the title of Murray’s article, his article really did not focus on the issue of universal vs. targeted pre-K. And neither did my analysis of his article.

        4. I think Steve Barnett is a quality researcher who takes the positions he does based on his reading of what the research literature shows or suggests. I don’t think it is productive to question the sincerity of people you disagree with without strong evidence.

      • Melissa says:

        Mr. Bartik, your reply is a bit condescending. Perhaps it is as Cindy indicates; you take offense to someone arguing your ethics. Many people get paid to research things, and you don’t need to be defensive about it. You get to research that about which you are passionate. Don’t get offended when people conclude that you may have a financial stake in the game.

      • timbartik says:

        I’m sorry you find my reply to be condescending. That was not my intent.

        I’m afraid I do find the charge that my position is not based on my honest reading of the evidence to be offensive. The charge also doesn’t make any sense. My employer, the Upjohn Institute, is largely supported by an endowment, not grants and contracts. We take the position that we will never undertake any funded research project unless we are free to publish the results even if the funder disagrees with them. I am paid to do research, but my salary does not depend upon finding evidence for any funder’s predetermined positions, or, for that matter, on any directives from the Upjohn Institute. I come up with my own positions based on my own research and my own readings of the research evidence. And the same is true of other researchers here.

        I would also say that in my general experience of researchers, the vast majority of them who adopt positions do so because they believe in those positions based on the research evidence. This is true of people I disagree with as well as people I agree with.

        You will note that in my critique of Dr. Murray’s article, I nowhere questioned his sincerity in advancing positions that he believes to be supported by the research. And that is because I believe his positions are based on what he believes the truth to be, not his employment by the American Enterprise Institute.

        Now, we all are subject to a different kind of bias, due not to who provides our paychecks, but due to our view about the way the world works. All of us must try to work hard to overcome our biases and let the data speak. The physicist Richard Feynmann says somewhere that any scientist must work hard not to fool oneself about the truth, because you are the easiest one to fool. We all attempt to avoid fooling ourselves, but this is a constant struggle.

        But this kind of bias is best addressed through open dialogue about the substance of what different researchers say. Even if any individual researcher unavoidably has some bias in viewing a topic, the truth will emerge from honest intellectual debate on the topic, if we are willing to listen to each other’s evidence and sincerely consider its meaning. The truth will not emerge from ad hominem attacks on the integrity of those we disagree with.

  4. Pingback: Link to post on Charles Murray’s analysis of large-scale pre-K | investinginkids

  5. Pingback: Steve Barnett’s take on what the facts show about pre-K | investinginkids

  6. cindy says:

    1. I disagree with the misleading approach advocates take when discussing “universal” programs.

    2. I have presented strong evidence to support the fact that Barnett’s job is to lobby and support government funded “universal” pre-k programs. His research at NIEER has been funded by the most powerful universal pre-k advocate and lobby, PEW. I have good reason to be cynical. While you sit at desks, doing statistics and numbers, I see real life problems that exist as a direct result of this powerful, often misleading lobby. This lobby is campaign journalism at it’s best.

  7. Phil Gordon says:

    Tim– Well Done. Thank you for the very thoughtful rebuttal! The evidence is ever growing for the importance of getting the early years right. Children deserve a good start, but beyond the moral argument, the nation benefits when its children start on a healthy productive path.

  8. John F. says:

    Tim Bartik: Excellent article. It’s great to see an evidence based deconstruction of a set of stale arguments that have been allowed to go unchallenged for far too long.

    Cindy: Respectfully, I think you need to separate the research from the politics. Early childhood development and education is one of the most well-researched fields and there is plenty of evidence supporting the return on investment. It is in fact one of the best possible uses of taxpayer dollars with the highest lifetime returns of any public policy.

    As someone who works in the field and can point to dozens of studies showing the specific returns we are producing you would think elected officials would be lining up to strengthen these investments in order to attract outside businesses by promoting the great benefits our state is producing for its children and families? But just the opposite is happening. Not one single elected official has advocated for a reduction in funding for any one particular grade level yet we were faced with having all of our funding cut in the last legislative session. And we’re a national model! After many years of bi-partisan funding cuts our legislators have even floated the idea of redefining the definition of at-risk so that they could serve even less children. No one has yet to suggest the de-funding of kindergarten. I think there’s a clear reason for this. The K-12 system is universal, while we support at-risk children.

    At-risk children are vulnerable from both a developmental and a political standpoint. A politician messing with the funding that supports everyone’s children commits political suicide, while a politician targeting at-risk children gets a pass because parents believe the short-sighted argument that it doesn’t affect them and their child though the studies show a major short term benefit to be when the teacher in their child’s classroom doesn’t have to spend instructional time bringing at-risk children up to speed with the rest of the class.

    A better question to ask is if it’s such a great investment and saves significant tax dollars in the k-12 system, how can states NOT afford to make these systems universal?

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