The faux empiricist

lowry_cheadThe least-plausible sentence in the English language is “We know this works,” when those words are spoken by President Barack Obama.

He said them the other week in his State of the Union address about early-childhood education. President Obama called for universal preschool funded by the federal government in cooperation with the states. He cited “study after study” showing that investment in Pre-K pays for itself several times over by creating better outcomes for children.

He said this about two months after the release of a devastating report on the ineffectiveness of the federal government’s already-existing $8 billion-a-year Pre-K program, Head Start. The study wasn’t published by The Heritage Foundation. It was conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, which presumably doesn’t have a right-wing agenda or bristle with hostility toward children.

Grover Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution calls the study “one of the most ambitious, methodologically rigorous, and expensive federal program evaluations carried out in the last quarter century.” The HHS study concluded that “there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts … . The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.”

One would have thought that an elaborate, state-of-the-art study of Head Start would have merited mention in a speech advocating expansion of Head Start-like programs. Instead, the president invoked “study after study” to create an impression of empirical certainty that, at the very least, doesn’t exist.

He said the experience of Oklahoma and Georgia with Pre-K is that it makes it more likely kids will go on to graduate high school, hold jobs and form stable families. Glenn Kessler, the fact-checker at The Washington Post, interviewed people close to the Oklahoma and Georgia programs, and they didn’t know what the president was talking about.

Believers in Pre-K usually cite the success of the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project, widely heralded early-childhood education programs from the 1960s and the 1970s. But Grover Whitehurst notes what sets them apart: They were very small, lavishly funded, multiyear programs run by small teams of highly committed experts. The question is whether they can replicate them on a vast scale. The 40-year experience of Head Start, now serving 1 million children, says “no.”

If the state of the research mattered to the president, he would be cautious rather than audacious in his Pre-K goals. He would focus on at-risk kids, who have the most to gain from Pre-K, rather than launching a new universal program. He would want more research on what does and doesn’t work at the state level rather than declaring the question settled for all time. He would support incrementalis  rather than a vast expansion on top of a failed Head Start.

But he has an ideological commitment to an expansive government and an unshakable faith in its ability, given enough funding and the right rules and regulations, to overcome any obstacle. So impervious is his point of view to the evidence that even his own Department of Health and Human Services can’t penetrate it.

      (Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.)

© 2013 by King Features Synd., Inc.