Last week legislation was introduced in the Senate and House to create federally funded universal pre-k for 4-year-olds. The details of the legislation are largely consistent with the White House proposal, called Preschool for All, that was announced in the president’s state of the union address in February.
The rhetoric around the introduction of the legislation includes the by now entirely predictable and thoroughly misleading appeal to the overwhelming research evidence supporting such an investment. For example, Senator Harkin, the lead author of the Senate version of the legislation, declared that “Decades of research tell us that … early learning is the best investment we can make to prepare our children for a lifetime of success.”
By way of background, I’m a developmental psychologist by training and spent the majority of my career designing and evaluating programs intended to enhance the cognitive development of young children. For instance, I directed a national Head Start Quality Research Center; created a program, Dialogic Reading (which is a widely used and effective intervention for enhancing the language development and book knowledge of young children from low-income families); and authored an assessment tool, the Get Ready to Read Screen, that has become a staple of early intervention program evaluation. My point is that I care about early childhood education and believe it is important – as witnessed by how I spent my professional life for 30 years.
My career since 2001 has largely been about advancing evidence-based education, which is the endeavor of collecting and using the best possible evidence to support policy and practice in education. Since the president’s state of the union address, I’ve been writing that the evidence is decidedly mixed on the impact of the type of preschool investments the president has called for and that we now see in the legislation introduced in Congress. It may seem in the pieces I’ve written that I’m wearing only my evidence-based education hat. But in fact if you’re an advocate of strengthening early childhood programs, as I am, you also need to pay careful attention to the evidence – all of it. Poor children deserve effective programs, not just programs that are well-intentioned.