Good intentions are never enough


It’s not enough to mean well. Results matter. Now that bills have been introduced in both chambers of Congress to implement President Barack Obama’s “preschool for all,” we need to ask a simple question: Does it work?

Will universal pre-k education really bring about the results Obama claims?

The evidence says no.

“Last week legislation was introduced in the Senate and House to create federally funded universal pre-k for 4-year-olds,” reports Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institute. “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.”

And supporters already are selling the bills hard.

“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,” Whitehurst explains. “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.’”

Whitehurst, a developmental psychologist, has spent his career developing ways to measure effectiveness 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,” he writes. “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.”

He’s right. We owe our children better.

This isn’t a unique situation. Lots of government initiatives start out with the best of intentions, then fail to meet the needs — or worse, cause worse problems as unintended consequences.

But for the Obama administration, meaning well seems to be enough. Obama says he wants to help low-wage earners “out of poverty,” by raising the minimum wage. But the evidence shows the effect of a higher minimum wage is more poverty, due to fewer jobs and missed opportunities to learn new skills. As the Heritage Foundation notes, “The minimum wage is a learning wage, the first rung on many workers’ career ladders ... A higher minimum wage saws off this rung.”

Results matter — and must be gauged before we start setting policies and spending money.

“Based on what we have learned from these studies, the most defensible conclusion is that these statewide programs are not working to meaningfully increase the academic achievement or social/emotional skills and dispositions of children from low-income families,” Whitehurst says. “I wish this weren’t so, but facts are stubborn things. Maybe we should figure out how to deliver effective programs before the federal government funds preschool for all.”


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