I’ve spent a lot of time this year co-writing a long white paper making the case for a better system of training and credentialing people who teach and care for children age 0 to 4. I’ve flown to Finland in the dead of winter to study their exemplary system of nationally funded early-childhood education first-hand. I have a young daughter and worked hard to find her a good child-care center. Heck, I even joined its board. All of which is to say, I think high-quality early childhood education is really important, and that we as a nation should provide more of it to young children and their families, particularly those who can’t afford to buy it on their own.

But several dimensions of the current pre-K conversation strike me as problematic. For example, here’s Marci Young, director of the advocacy group Pre-K Now, posting on a strange Internet message board that the Washington Post is operating in lieu of actual education journalism:

There’s an education reform strategy that has 50 years of solid research behind it, with proven results that demonstrate how to improve student achievement. It’s a solution backed by both political parties to help narrow the achievement gap, increase high school graduation rates and reduce crime and delinquency. It’s an investment proven to yield up to $7 for every public dollar invested, paying dividends to families, school districts and taxpayers. It’s voluntary, high-quality pre-kindergarten.

“Proven” is an awfully big word. It’s been proven that if an integer n is greater than 2, then the equation an + bn = cn has no solutions in non-zero integers a, b, and c. It’s been proven that a comprehensive polio vaccination program can eradicate polio. Nobody has “proven” that voluntary, high-quality pre-kindergarten returns $7 for every $1 spent, or will achieve substantial and lasting effects on education—unless by “high-quality” you mean “like the small subset of all pre-K programs for which there is strong empirical evidence suggesting substantial and lasting effects, if taken to an exponentially larger scale via as-yet undemonstrated means.”

In other words, there are small localized pre-K programs with robust long-term effects (and which were, thus, unavoidably, implemented a long time ago) and large federal programs that have not been nearly as consistently successful, and some mid-range programs that have worked pretty well and others that haven’t. According to a RAND study of early-childhood programs in California, 16 percent of early childhood classrooms fall below “adequate” standards of quality, meaning they may be actively harming child development. Only 22 percent were classified as “good,” and disadvantaged children were less likely than others to be in the best classrooms.

The point being, you can’t just assert high quality in making these policy arguments. You need an actual, plausible plan to ensure quality. Otherwise, it would be like saying, “All we need to fix American education is to enroll every child in a high-quality charter school, high-quality meaning ‘as good as the best charter school ever.’ ” That would be laughed down by anti-charter people and rightly so.

In fairness, Young does outline some dimensions of quality—well-trained teachers, small classes, good curricula, “comprehensive supports"—but each of these on its own represents such a huge challenge conceptually and/or resource-wise that as stated they’re not much better than simply saying “high-quality.” I’m not saying these challenges can’t be overcome—the paper I’m working on asserts that the “well-trained teacher” dimension can. But they don’t support the “There’s this proven education policy that’s just staring us in the face if only we were smart and good enough as a people to adopt it” tone that you often hear from the pre-K advocacy community.


Yet, universal pre-K has emerged as a favorite policy choice for those on the left who have adopted the fashionable “Waiting for Superman Backlash” position in the education debate. Kevin Drum, for example, thinks that all education reform is hopeless but is a big supporter of pre-K. When NAACP President Benjamin Jealous recently spoke at AEI, he cited high-quality preschool as a significant part of his organization’s developing education work while expressing much more ambivalence about charters and other parts of the standard education reform agenda. The NEA is a significant early childhood education supporter, citing the same studies as Pre-K Now.

I think there are two reasons for this. First, people are drawing unconscious parallels between a good early childhood education and things like the polio vaccine. Both come early in life and, properly administered, both provide long-lasting benefits. But you can’t inoculate a child against educational failure. If you want someone to learn—particularly someone whose life circumstances leave them educationally vulnerable—you need to give them a good early educational experience, and then a good first grade experience, and second grade, and third, and middle school, and high school, and college, and so on, forever. Screw up any part of it, beginning, middle, or end, and they’ll suffer.

Second, and relatedly, asserting that pre-K-12 education is the answer relieves one from responsibility for addressing the educational problems of the K-12 system itself. That’s the common thread binding together the de facto counter-reform agenda, which generally includes universal “high quality” pre-K, smaller class sizes, funding adequacy, better teacher pay, improved working conditions, school safety, and better teacher preparation and professional development. They’re all legitimate ideas on their own. But they collectively avoid addressing the tough quality and accountability issues related to teachers, curricula, school leaders, and organizational design that lie at the heart of educational dysfunction.

It’d be nice if there was a proven educational vaccine fully ready and developed, just waiting for enough public funding to produce a dose for every child. But that’s not the world we live in.