The Unexamined Early Childhood Education “Solution”

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It looks like Governor Dayton is putting his eggs in the early childhood education basket.

Last year, the legislature approved a $134 million funding of all-day kindergarten throughout the state. In yesterday’s inaugural speech, the governor recommended using some of the state’s $1 billion surplus (read: money taxpayers were overcharged) to “expand and improve our early education and child-care programs.”

According to Gov. Dayton, the expansion of early childhood education will not constitute “spending” but an “investment.”

But is early childhood education really an “investment”?

We are supposed to assume it is because proponents of it have used the magic words: “Studies show…” Apparently, the studies have shown that early childhood education results in a high educational, and thus, economic return.

However, we need to further examine some of the studies that are usually cited. One local advocate, Art Rolnick, is fond of referencing the High/Scope study of the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan. As Rolnick himselfadmits, “Program participants lost their advantage in IQ scores over nonparticipants within a few years after completing the program.” The “advantages” were in “noncognitive areas involving social-emotional functioning,” i.e., less special education diagnoses, overall higher average income, and less time spent in jail.

Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation have questioned the level of economic rate of return of this study. They have also pointed out the educational failures of the earliest state adopters of universal early childhood education—Oklahoma and Georgia—where graduation rates have remained stagnant and proficiency scores have declined since the programs were implemented in 1998 and 1995, respectively.

But the singular focus on early childhood education also raises other concerns and questions. For one, why should we trust the current education system with 3-4 year-olds when it is doing a mediocre job with 5-18 year-olds? Proficiency scores among Minnesota students have stagnated the past couple of years around a depressing 60% in math and reading. Who really believes that throwing children into this same system two years earlier will produce better results?

And then there’s the parent issue. We hear over and over again how crucial good parents are to a child’s academic success, and that without good parents, teachers can only do so much.

So why is the solution to parse children off from their parents (and usually, in a bit of unnoted elitism, advocates mean poor and minority parents) for even longer periods of time? Some advocates argue that such a step is necessary so that many children will be prepared to do a better job of parenting when they are adults as a result of their extra education. But then, assuming the project produces exponentially more “socially adjusted” individuals—in and of itself a problematic term and idea—you will have created a generation of people whose personal and social formation has primarily come at the hands of a system and procedures. How do we expect the products of this system to then know how to parent? Why are we not instead asking ourselves how we can improve a culture in both the home and society, and help parents be better parents? Is early childhood education simply kicking the proverbial can down the road?

When it comes to education, the current legislative and administrative leadership in Minnesota is too much in the habit of chasing the latest “bright shiny object.” Before, it was lower class sizes; now it’s early childhood education. Gov. Dayton and his supporters need to take a deep breath and reflect on what is really afflicting the current system rather than simply extending the experience of that same system.

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