Don’t buy what Ol’ Joe is selling

Occasionally, political spin doctors and editors whose primary goal is apparently to promote specific political agendas of their liking, fall asleep at the wheel and a news article that is based on solid research slips through the cracks. One such article recently appeared in USA Today. Written by Katherine B. Stephens, leader of the early childhood program at the American Enterprise Institute, the column assessed Joe Biden’s plan for a taxpayer funded universal preschool program for all three and four year old children.

Biden, or whoever is thinking for him these days, claims a universal preschool program will “cultivate the potential of young children” while “laying a strong foundation” for their future academic success.

Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?

You’ve got to hand it to politicians and the folks who write their releases. They have an almost magical gift of taking words that mean nothing and making them sound important. After all, what heathen could possibly disagree with a program that would “cultivate potential” and “lay a strong foundation” in children?

But, make no mistake, this is typical political gibberish meant to convince us that programs, not people, are most important in determining an individual’s success.

Ms. Stephens points out that decades of research have shown that there is one factor far more important than whether or not kids attend preschool in shaping school outcomes, and that factor is parenting.

She points to two specific, well controlled studies to make her case. One evaluated the effectiveness of Tennessee’s high quality state prekindergarten program, while the other, conducted in 2010 by the Department of Health and Human Services, studied the long-term impact of Head Start. Both studies found that parents, not programs, have the most impact on a child’s future academic success.

Both studies also showed that, while children who attended preschool performed better on achievement tests at the end of preschool, by the end of kindergarten, students who had not attended preschool caught up with those who did, and by second or third grade those who did not go to preschool scored as well or better than those who did.

In other words, despite what politicians like Joe Biden say, preschool in and of itself is not the most important factor in a child’s future success. Parents are.

Period.

Now, that doesn’t mean children and their parents don’t benefit from involvement in preschool programs. Of course, children are better served by participating in a nurturing, structured, educational environment than being ignored in a home devoid of those qualities, and preschool often offers a viable day care option for working parents.

But, then say that. Stop pretending as if the damage caused by poor parenting can be undone by a program.

Because it can’t.

Ms. Stephens also wrote that politicians who tout the importance of “early learning” programs don’t even define the term correctly. Early learning does not begin when children are three and four years old, as they would have you believe. Science tells us that it begins during the prenatal period and continues after birth, long before preschool programs often begin. So, waiting to educate a child until he or she is three or four years old is three or four years too late.

To be fair, Joe Biden isn’t the only politician who pushes the narrative that preschool programs are THE difference maker for disadvantaged children, nor would it be accurate to criticize only Democrats for making this claim.

Right here in Ohio, Representative Andrew Brenner and Senator Peggy Lehner, both Republicans and both of whom have lead legislative committees on education, have claimed that expanding preschool options is integral in closing the achievement gap among children for a lifetime.

Now, maybe Biden, Brenner, and Lehner are well meaning people who are simply misguided souls. But, their ignorance (or dishonesty) damages kids. It would be nice if a politician…just one…would make a proclamation based on what the science tells us is true instead of what their party’s platform claims is true, and the science says parents matter more than programs.

So, if Joe Biden ever is allowed to emerge from his basement bunker and speak for himself, when he tries to convince you that taxpayer-funded universal preschool programs will level the playing field for disadvantaged children forever, don’t believe ol’ Joe.

Because the science doesn’t believe him, either.