Blog: The Educated Reporter

Early Childhood Education: Does the Research Justify the Cost?

EWA recently hosted a seminar in New Orleans on early childhood education. We asked some of the journalists who attended  to contribute posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Alexander Russo of Scholastic’s This Week in Education. You can also find out more about early childhood education on EWA’s Topics page.

Reporters at EWA’s recent seminar in New Orleans were just settling into the first morning of events when along came 10:30’s blockbuster Whitehurst-Doggett Celebrity Death Match pitting the Obama administration’s top early childhood advocate against a former Bush administration education expert who’s skeptical about the research surrounding early childhood education effects.

It’s not that Libby Doggett of the U.S. Ed Department and Grover Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution had any personal beef with each other, as far as anyone could tell, or even that Whitehurst didn’t think that early learning was an important and potentially beneficial area of investment for the federal government and states.  Rather, Doggett and Whitehurst were there to argue – politely – over how to interpret the research that justifies the spending the Obama administration and others are proposing.

Whitehurst was playing the careful researcher, untainted by political or policy considerations.  (In very rough terms, think Smarick on turning around failing schools.) Doggett was there to push the research forward as far as possible.  (Think Secretary Richard Riley back during the second Clinton Administration pushing the class-size reduction research.) No one expected either to convince the other, and no one was surprised in that regard.

The session was much-Tweeted.  Chalkbeat’s Patrick Wall described it as a “lively debate,” which might have been stretching things a bit but not that much. (Click here for some pictures.)

Some highlights:

*Doggett, who repeatedly noted that she wasn’t a research expert, made a plainly political case for the Obama expansion. She repeated the Obama administration talking point about how every $1 spent in early childhood education gets a $7 return, and at one point claimed outright that “It’s clear preschool works.”

* Whitehurst took the position that he supported the high-[E1] quality early education efforts some states and districts had implemented but that Head Start in particular wasn’t working and that the Obama proposal was more sentimental than sound, pushing to expand programs whose benefits were unclear. [Economist Tim Bartik rebutted Whitehurst afterwards.]

*A New York Times piece that came out the next morning noted that preschool was “having its moment, as a favored cause for politicians and interest groups who ordinarily have trouble agreeing on the time of day.” 

*The Times article noted that most of the Republican interest in preschool is coming from individual states rather than from Republican lawmakers in Congress. It included a quote from Whitehurst’s Brookings colleague Ron Haskins: “There’s still that ideological barrier that Republicans have that the federal government has no business being in elementary and secondary education,” he said.

*In its post-session write-up, Politico noted that there would be Capitol Hill hearings on early childhood education the following week but no clear path for funding or enactment, which Obama has been pushing since last year.

*EdSource ran a Q and A with Doggett that addressed many of these same issues.

The session, titled Is Federal Early Childhood Policy Headed in the Right Direction?, was ably moderated by NPR’s golden-voiced Claudio Sanchez, and the background reading from EWA included pieces from New America (Subprime Learning), the White House (Early Learning Platform), and Brookings (Doubts About Obama’s Preschool for All and Preschool Proposal Not Based on Sound Research).


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