Thursday, April 3, 2014

Controversies Regarding Pre-K Programs

Pre-K programs (or Head-Start programs) are the headlines todays - they are important subjects for discussion. Most significant is the question as to whether the outcome of these programs justifies their significant expense.

Pre-K (Heard Start ) programs designed to improve the education and future success of participants remain controversial in outcome studies.  Though a number of studies have shown true gains in   reading, math, etc over a number of years, a recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services (Dec 2012) found overblown expectations. The study showed gains with Head Start in experiencing success in kindergarten, but no advantages over the non-Head Start students by the third grade.

It's remarkable that answers to the success, or lack thereof, of these programs are still in question after having been in effect in one form or other since the days of President Lyndon Johnson - some 50 years ago!  Admittedly there can be a number of explanations for differences in studies, primarily in the methodology, e.g. the number of children involved in each study, how rigorous the methodology, and the statistical tools used to evaluate the data.  I admit to being unaware of the various techniques employed in all the studies, but do know that the Department of Health and Human Services evaluated some 5,000 children across 23 states, and that this study involved a random assignment of children to a Head Start group or a control group.  Such "random assignments" are the only way to evaluate such data when comparing two groups.  The groups should be identical in every other way.

If we allow parents to decide whether or not to enroll their students in a pre-K (Head Start) program, one cannot compare the pre-K group whose parents selected the program with an otherwise similar group of children whose parents chose not to enroll them.  These groups are selectively different - biased groups, not random groups.  No conclusive data can result from such a comparison.

New York's mayor Bill DeBlasio has promised to institute "universal pre-K", whatever that denotes.  Does that imply universal availability or universal compulsion?  If the former, one can rightly assume that there will be parents who do not enroll their children in such a program.  Given a significant number of non-participants,  the true success of a pre-K program may remain unanswered.

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