An Interview with Neal McCluskey: Throwing Good Money After Bad?

Feb 20, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Neal, the President in his “State of the Union“ seems to think Early Head Start is going to solve a lot of our educational problems. Or am I off on this?

Well, he provided a huge overselling of pre-K, including Early Head Start. He asserted that every dollar spent on “high-quality” pre-K yields seven dollars in long-term benefits, but neglected to mention that this isn’t based on solid research about Head Start, Early Head Start, or other big programs. It is based on hyper-intensive, microscopic programs – the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs – that each treated fewer than 60 kids. And if you look into the more detailed plans the White House released after the speech, you’ll see that expanding Early Head Start is part of the overall push. This despite the most recent federal report on the program showing no long-term benefits overall for those treated, and very negative results for the “highest-risk” kids.

2) Neal, you and I both know the research, dating back before 1969. But can you summarize in a sentence or two or three- Has Head Start been effective?

Head Start has not been effective, if “effective” means students randomly assigned to it consistently outpace those randomly not assigned. Those who were randomly assigned do show some very short-term, significant benefits relative to those not assigned, but those wash out after just a year or two. In other words, kids treated by Head Start are ultimately no better off than had they not been treated, meaning Head Start is a failure.

3) You know, if everyone would just say that Head Start is a “ baby sitting “ operation, with no long term statistically significant effects I think everyone would be happier. What’s stopping that? Politics?

My guess is politics: Nobody wants to spend $8 billion a year just for babysitting, and babysitting isn’t going to help low-income kids much.

4) Cradle to Grave is becoming more and more pervasive- with this being the next step- Your thoughts?

We kind of got the grave with Obamacare, and Early Head Start – which offers services before a child is even born – gets government involved before the cradle.

5) Are there down sides to Early Head Start?

There seem to be, especially for the “highest-risk” kids the program should be helping the most. Those kids by fifth grade scored lower on vocabulary than untreated kids, lower on mathematics, had more chronic school absenteeism, and suffered other negative effects.

6) I am not a Freudian by any means, or an “ Ego Psychologist “, but it seems taking kids away from their parents, or at least providing this “ haven “ for 2,3 year old kids is somewhat suspect. Am I wrong?

I’m not a psychologist at all, but I suspect part of the problem is that children are better off being cared for by their parents than other people. There are, though, in-home care options in Early Head Start. I think the greater problem is that these services simply can’t overcome the host of challenges many low-income kids face. Fundamental changes have to occur in culture, family structures, K-12 schools, and other crucial variables.

7) Have you heard anything about any standardized programs being used for Early Head Start?

I haven’t, though I suspect there isn’t huge variation in the basic Early Head Start models. But I haven’t delved into it that: My goal has only been to see if Early Head Start clearly provides the benefits some people blithely insist it does. What I have found is it doesn’t.

8) Who is doing current research on Head Start? Anyone?

Lots of people research Head Start and other pre-K programs. The more important question is who is paying attention to the research, because it sure doesn’t seem to be the President or many other policymakers.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

I think you got the good stuff.

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