Presidential Candidates on Early Education

The laudable, now pro-forma tidal wave of post-debate fact-checking ignored a subtle but profound misunderstanding that came near the end of Wednesday's third and final presidential debate at Hofstra University. But no wonder, the issue was education -- and early education -- a forgotten stepchild of this presidential campaign. But it may become a very important topic after Jan. 20, 2009.

Sen. Barack Obama, for the second time in the presidential debates, singled out early education as an area in need of greater investment. Obama's platform includes a new $10 billion investment in early childhood. McCain's tosses a few crumbs. It might finally behoove pundits, fact-checkers and campaign reporters to start becoming better-versed in the topic.

After Sen. Barack Obama volunteered again Wednesday he wanted to make new investments on early education, Sen. John McCain followed by discussing the Head Start program.

"I think the Head Start program is a great program," McCain said. "A lot of people, including me, said, look, it's not doing what it should do. By the third grade, many times, children who were in the Head Start program aren't any better off than the others."

McCain certainly isn't the first to misconstrue Head Start results. He probably won't be the last.

Some studies have documented a gradual "fade out" of cognitive and academic skills as children advance in school. McCain's reference was to one conducted in 1969. But, sustaining the gains for at-risk kids who have had significant exposure to high-quality early childhood education depends on the quality of elementary schools to which they continue, and that is generally not taken into account in these studies. That's not an argument for giving up on quality early education; that's an argument for strengthening our K-12 system, particularly for the most at-risk students.

The effect that quality preschool has on cognitive skills may fade over time when a child moves to a substandard school. But other important effects persist, regardless of elementary or secondary school quality. Looking far beyond third grade, longitudinal studies of participants in other rigorouslyimplemented early education programs found that social and emotional gains made by at-risk kids in quality early learning programs do not fade out. And that may be early learning's most important contribution to later academic and life success. Those social-emotional skills include physical and mental health, perseverance, attention, motivation and self-confidence.

Some may pooh-pooh social-emotional skills as "soft." In fact, research shows these skills figure significantly into whether a child develops into a successful student and productive adult. At-risk children who have quality early childhood education score higher in these categories and sustain the advantage into adulthood. Don't take it from me, take it from the research of Nobel Laureate James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, not exactly a breeding ground of mushy-headed romanticism.

Other advantages of quality early education -- from lower special education and remedial education costs to higher graduation rates, reduced crime and even higher adult earnings -- make it one of the most cost-effective public investments available.

When it starts early and is implemented well, Head Start lives up to the promise and potential documented in other early education programs. One aspect of Head Start McCain didn't mention is Early Head Start, a little known set-aside for at-risk infants and toddlers within Head Start, widely acknowledged for its high quality.

The Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project, a randomized federal study involving 3,000 families, found particularly significant benefits among African-American families as well as among families who enrolled during pregnancy. McCain wrapped up his knock on Head Start by calling for reform.

"Let's reform it and fund it," he said. "We need to reform these programs. We need to have transparency. We need to have rewards. It's a system that cries out for accountability and transparency and the adequate funding."

Good news, Senator. Head Start has been "reformed." The most recent reauthorization of Head Start, approved last year, raised teacher standards, increased competition and added greater accountability. Few of those reforms will take, however, without greater funding. Head Start has been in a virtual flat-funded dry gulch for the last eight years. So where's the "adequate funding" to get those reforms working?