In the United States, education has historically been a local responsibility. The federal government had essentially no role in education until the establishment in 1953 of the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and the 1954 US Supreme Court Brown ruling that banned legally segregated schools. In 1979, there was a sharp increase in federal involvement when a full-fledged Department of Education was set up under Jimmy Carter. Many Republicans have argued that there is no Constitutional authority for federal meddling in schools, and Ronald Reagan tried unsuccessfully to abolish the department.
There have been federal interventions in various aspects of K-12 education — national standards are an example — but the most intrusive and controversial revolve around race. Forced integration was unquestionably the most hotly contested attempt by the central government to reorder educational priorities. Not only did it dramatically change the character of many American schools, it prompted massive white flight to the suburbs and increased residential segregation.
Now, federal involvement centers on attempts to close the racial gaps in performance. Instead of continuing the Republican effort to get the US government out of local schools, President George W. Bush raised involvement to an unprecedented degree with the 2001 “No Child Left Behind” law that mandated that all racial groups would perform at the same level. In the succeeding years, from 2002 to 2004, the department’s budget grew 70 percent.
Most governments try to expand their power, and federal intrusion into important, new areas of American life is always noteworthy and sometimes worrying. The federal record in K-12 education is not brilliant. The campaigns to integrate schools and to narrow racial gaps in achievement brought much disruption and little lasting success. That these efforts should have been centered around race only underlines the intractable difficulty of race for American society as a whole. One might even argue that absent the American race problem, the federal government would never have concerned itself with K-12 education.
Educational reformers are now planning a new campaign, to emphasize the importance of early childhood, pre-K intervention — and, again, it is centered around race. It is increasingly common to argue that black and Hispanic children cannot be brought to parity with whites and Asians without very early government action. The more moderate reformers propose starting formal education at age three, two years before kindergarten. The more ambitious would have public education begin virtually at birth.
My purpose here is to emphasize the paternalism of the school reformers — their belief that they know best and their confidence about imposing their policies on parents of all races. In the 1970s and 1980s, most reformers favored court-ordered busing to achieve racially balanced integration but also recognized that most white parents did not think their children would benefit from racial mixing. Therefore, if integration were to be achieved, it would have to be imposed by authoritative judges.
In the words of Jennifer Hochschild, a professor who was then at Princeton, “democracy” should “give way to liberalism.” Since most parents chose not to send their children to racially balanced schools, courts should insist that they do so. Quoting John Dewey, Professor Hochschild maintained, “what the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must the community want for all its children.” If most Americans would not voluntarily choose to have racially balanced schools, “they must permit elites to make that choice for them.”
James Liebman, a Columbia law professor who worked on school integration cases for the NAACP, explained that one goal was to withdraw control from parents and to give children “a wider range of choices about the persons with whom they might associate and the values they might adopt as they approach adulthood.” A principal purpose was to deny parents the right to send their children to schools that would reinforce “the ‘personal features’ and values those parents have chosen as their own.” Liebman urged federal judges to protect the “autonomy” of children from the “tyranny” of their parents. The courts should make sure that children were exposed to “a broader range of … value options than their parents could hope to provide.” As Liebman saw it, family life was too often “marked by exclusiveness, suspicion, and jealousy as to those without.”
In a series of remarkable decisions, the US Supreme Court essentially adopted this view and forced its vision of racial integration on reluctant Americans. I have written about the resulting social upheaval in my 1984 book, The Burden of Brown. Eventually, in the face of resistance and sustained failure to achieve many of integration’s goals — especially the equalization of black and white test scores — the court turned away from busing for racial balance. In decisions handed down since 1991, the high court has provided a road map that allows school districts to move away from court-ordered busing. In doing so, the Supreme Court took account of the fact that most white parents, and many blacks also, regarded busing as an interference with what Justice Lewis Powell called “the concept of community” and with the “liberty to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.”
The demise of court-ordered busing did not mark the end of what might be called “reform paternalism,” but this time the targets of paternalism are different. Unlike forced busing, whose primary targets were whites who would not otherwise associate with non-whites, school reformers who support early childhood and pre-K education have aimed their ministrations primarily at black and Hispanic parents. And many of these parents, like the white parents of the 1970s and 1980s, have taken exception to being told that they do not know how to run their lives and rear their children.
The push for early childhood and K-12 programs has occurred against a background of persistent racial and ethnic disparities in academic achievement. Despite all previous reform efforts, already by kindergarten 85 percent of African American students, and 75 percent of Hispanics, score below the average for whites and Asians. These proportions remain about the same as students move through the grades, and by the senior year of high school the average black student is reading and computing at about the level of the average white eighth-grade student.
The intractability of the achievement gaps has led many reformers to think something is wrong with the culture of the underachieving minority groups. This explains the shift away from K-12 toward early childhood. This trend received a special boost from a Nobel Prize-winning economist, James J. Heckman, who teaches at the University of Chicago. One of Prof. Heckman’s econometric models measured the benefits of early childhood education by comparing the life histories of youngsters who either did or did not receive early childhood education. After comparing the recipients’ rate of employment, welfare dependency, criminal behavior, and incarceration with that of a control group, Prof. Heckman concluded that the economic benefits of early childhood education were substantial. “Rates of return are 15% to 17%. The benefit-cost ratio is eight to one.”
Prof. Heckman based this conclusion on studies of a few intensive programs that had targeted disadvantaged children and continued to study them until they were adults. One of these programs was the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan. From 1962 to 1967, Perry provided three-year-old disadvantaged black children with two and a half hours of daily preschool. Perry also placed teachers with advanced degrees in the children’s homes, where they spent 90 minutes each week giving the Perry parents lessons in child rearing. The students were then compared with a control group at ages 14, 15, 19, 27, and 40.
The Abecedarian Program in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was another intensive program. The children were enrolled at the age of three to four months and continued with substantial intervention up to age eight.
After noting that the Perry and Abecedarian children did better than similar children who did not receive enriched early childhood education, Prof. Heckman concluded that academic problems and achievement gaps stemmed from “the lack of stimulation afforded young children,” and that families were “the major source of inequality in American social and economic life.”
Prof. Heckman recognized that “American society has been reluctant to intervene in family life, especially in the early years,” but he thought “paternalistic interventions in the early life of children in certain dysfunctional families” could close the achievement gaps. Such intervention was urgent because of “the growth in single-parent families,” especially among blacks, 70 percent of whom are now born out of wedlock. Because “an increasing fraction of all US children are growing up in adverse environments,” he wrote, “the best way to improve schools is to improve the students sent to them.” Students could be improved by reforming the way parents reared their children.
Prof. Heckman urged that the way to bring up the underperformers was to “catch ’em young,” because the traditional methods of school reform came too late to make much difference. Once students started school, “test scores across socioeconomic groups are stable, suggesting that later schooling has little effect in reducing or widening the gaps that appear before students enter school.” Prof. Heckman did not say that all essential aptitudes were determined by age three. Nevertheless, because he was an economist, he wanted to act where the return was highest, and he thought the payoff from early intervention was greatest. His research helped establish the foundations for the push for early childhood education.
Richard E. Nisbett, who teaches psychology at the University of Michigan, also touted the benefits of early childhood education. Like Prof. Heckman, Prof. Nisbett recognized that previous school reforms had had “only modest effects on student achievement” and also concluded that the Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian program, as well as a similar program in Milwaukee, could accomplish a great deal.
Prof. Nisbett’s 2009 book, Intelligence and How to Get It, challenged the hereditarian view that intelligence and academic talent are substantially under genetic control. Prof. Nisbett acknowledged that “many if not most experts on intelligence” were hereditarians and believe that heredity accounted for much of the variation within racial groups. He also cited a 1988 poll in which a majority of 600 experts in the field of psychological measurement believed that heredity was partly responsible for the 15-point gap between the average IQs of whites and African Americans.
Nevertheless, Prof. Nisbett insisted that “the accumulated evidence of research, much of it quite recent, provides good reason for being far more optimistic about the possibilities of actually improving the intelligence of individuals [and] groups … than was thought by most experts even a few years ago.” In addition to the record of youngsters who had attended intensive preschools, Prof. Nisbett cited studies that suggested the IQs of adopted children increased substantially if they were reared by upscale white parents.
Earlier adoption studies had found that the IQs of adopted children resembled those of their birth parents more than those of their adoptive parents. Many scholars had therefore concluded that intelligence was relatively immune to changes in environment. Prof. Nisbett, however, criticized the earlier studies on the ground that the environment of adopted children usually did not change much, since most adopted children moved from one middle-class family to another.
Prof. Nisbett put great emphasis on three recent French studies that compared poor children who were adopted by well-to-do parents with similar poor children who were not adopted. According to Prof. Nisbett, the IQs of the adopted children increased by an impressive 12 to 18 points. Prof. Nisbett made much of these studies because they supposedly demonstrated that preschool programs could boost the intelligence of disadvantaged children if the programs simulated the practices of upscale adoptive families. Prof. Nisbett strongly concluded that parents can affect a child’s intelligence.
Although he rejected the idea that races differ in reasoning power and imagination, Prof. Nisbett embraced the theory that there was something wrong with the child-rearing practices of African Americans. He attributed part of the problem to socio-economic status (SES). “Compared with higher-SES parents, lower-SES parents are less likely to be warm and supportive of their children and are more likely to punish infractions harshly.” “The lower-SES child is likely to have peers who are on average less intellectually stimulating than those available to higher-SES children.” According to Prof. Nisbett, the environment in single-parent families was especially bleak.
In addition to SES-related problems, Prof. Nisbett maintained that even middle-class blacks reared their children “in ways that are less likely to encourage high IQ scores.” Compared with whites of comparable social and economic circumstances, blacks did not “interact verbally with their children.” They were less likely to provide books or educational toys. They were “more likely to frown and scowl.” They did not encourage children to make “problem-solving efforts.” Prof. Nisbett reported that “the IQs of black and interracial children raised by white adoptive parents were 13 points higher than those of black and interracial children raised by black adoptive parents.”
Prof. Nisbett softened his criticism by insisting that “genes account for none of the difference in IQ between blacks and whites.” Environmental factors, especially child rearing practices, “plausibly account for all of it.” “Aspects of black culture — at every social-class level — are less likely to promote cognitive performance compared with white culture. … I’m saying black parents need to do some stuff differently.”
Prof. Nisbett nevertheless recognized that he was saying things that might offend some African Americans. If he had published his book in 1969 instead of 2009, he would have been raked with criticism. The conventional wisdom among reformers of the 1960s and 1970s was that underclass African-American students knew they belonged to a despised group and therefore quickly turned against reformers who showed even a semblance of patronizing condescension. It was said that students in the inner cities would not cooperate with anyone who considered their values deviant or inferior. The conventional wisdom posited that middle-class teachers were doomed to fail unless they recognized and built on cultural strengths that already existed in the black community.
Education writer Herbert Kohl, whose book 36 Children (1967) was one of the classic expressions of left-liberal educational thinking in the 1960s, summed up this explanation in an influential essay: “I Won’t Learn from You.” According to Mr. Kohl, disadvantaged minority students would shut down and refuse to learn if they sensed that they were being taught in ways that somehow dishonored their culture.
In the 1970s, liberal school reformers scoffed at “the inadequate mother hypothesis” as surely as they downplayed the importance of IQ. They rejected the theory that blacks were doing poorly in school because their mothers’ vocabularies were limited, because black mothers were sullen and authoritative, or because they did not give their children intellectual stimulation.
Prof. Nisbett therefore expected to be criticized for resurrecting the social pathology rationale in the 21st century. “I’ve said some things that I really thought would bring the wrath of people onto me,” Prof. Nisbett told one reporter. But such criticism barely surfaced when Prof. Nisbett published his book in 2009. Instead of attacking the idea that black families are responsible for the shortcomings of black students, influential reformers of both left and right embraced Prof. Nisbett’s approach.
The New York Times published a précis of Intelligence and How to Get It, and columnists Jim Holt and Nicholas Kristoff weighed in with special applause. In an extended essay, Timeseducation writer James Traub noted that the “accomplishments of [school] reform” had been “modest,” but that was because of bad parenting practices. Black children grew up “in a world without books or even stimulating games.” This was true even of middle-class children, for there was a significant “difference in child rearing habits and peer culture between the black and white middle classes.” As Mr. Traub saw it, schools could not solve the problem. The only hope was “a kind of … paternalism in which mothers are expected to yield up their children to wise professionals.”
Some conservative writers expressed similar views. Former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn wrote that “to compensate for conversational, educational, and cognitive shortfalls at home, boys and girls from acutely deprived environments need more intensive instruction . … Their parents … need help.” David J. Armor of George Mason University similarly opined that black and Hispanic infants and young children would benefit if their mothers gave them up for several hours a day. These children could “maximize” their intelligence, Prof. Armor wrote, if their parents “let others become, in effect, ‘surrogate’ parents who provide the type of care that the parents should be providing.” Prof. Armor, however, recognized that most mothers did not wish to be separated “from their infant and toddler children for substantial periods of time.” He doubted that it would be possible to convince these parents that they should let others become substitute parents.
Barack Obama eventually emerged as the most influential proponent of early childhood education for infants and toddlers, and pre-K programs for three- and four-year olds. Mr. Obama’s Democratic Party platform of 2008 promised to “make quality, affordable early childhood care and education available to every American child from the day he or she is born.” The editors of Education Week calculated that Obama’s education plans would add about $30 billion per year in additional spending, but Mr. Obama explained: “We know what a difference early childhood programs make in the lives of our kids.”
On balance, it may be an advance to have accepted the possibility that if certain children arrive in kindergarten already behind it may not be the fault of the schools if they never catch up. Prof. Heckman’s proposal that “the best way to improve schools is to improve the students sent to them” is a radical departure from the usual round of blaming teachers. That he has not been hounded out of the debate with shouts of “blaming the victim” shows how little has been accomplished by conventional school reform and how desperate reformers are for new schemes
Largely in response to the efforts of the “early intervention” movement, the nationwide enrollment of four-year olds in state-funded pre-kindergartens increased by 40 percent between 2004 and 2009. However, this was largely in response to pressure from school-reform lobbies in various state legislatures. Rank-and-file citizens had many misgivings, and voters in California rejected “universal pre-K” when the policy was submitted to them as an initiative proposal in 2006.
In explaining the defeat in California, proponents of early childhood and pre-K education stressed that well-to-do people feared they would be “taxed into oblivion” and therefore mounted a campaign of disinformation. According to David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, wealthy entrepreneurs “went on TV, reinforcing people’s cynicism about any government program.” The expense of early childhood education was certainly a consideration since, according to the calculation of another Berkeley professor, sociologist Bruce Fuller, the yearly expense at the Perry Preschool was $15,166 per student (in 2000 dollars), about twice what Head Start spent per pupil. For the more interventionist Abecedarian experiment, the estimated annual cost was $34,476.
But more than money was at issue. Prof. Fuller also noted that many black and Hispanic parents opposed “universal pre-K” because they wanted their children to be cared for close to home, either by relatives or friends. These parents noted that school reformers wanted to funnel government funds into programs that hired teachers with college degrees in early childhood education, and many minority parents feared such programs would undermine their children’s sense of ethnic identity and pride.
One Hispanic activist explained that the people who were in charge of the less formal neighborhood day care centers were “98 percent … Latina” and “really conscious of the children’s culture.” Many African Americans had the same concerns. Ronald Ferguson, a black scholar at Harvard, expressed their view when he wrote, “Black folks don’t want white folks coming into their communities and saying, ‘You ought to be more like us.’ ”
The desire to preserve black and Hispanic identity merged with the interests of those who were already providing day care. In 2007 there were some 113,000 child care enterprises in the United States, many in private homes or church basements. Most did not provide the sort of socialization that early childhood reformers recommended. Many could afford to hire only high school graduates who supervised play but did little teaching.
Many of the smaller, less-formal day care centers were subsidized by the federal welfare reform legislation of 1996, which cut back on welfare benefits but gave poor parents vouchers they could use at any child care provider, licensed or not. By 2008, the federal Child Care Development Fund was paying for about $10 billion a year in vouchers for 1.75 million preschool children. One scholar at the Brookings Institution joked that welfare reform had turned out to be “a money machine for child care.” The thousands of small operators who were collecting those billions of dollars did not want to see the system change.
Does early intervention work?
Aside from whether the presumed beneficiaries want it, much depends on whether one believes the reports on the effectiveness of early intervention. James Heckman and Richard Nisbett claim that money spent on early childhood programs eventually saves taxpayers’ money. Their research involves complicated calculations and assumptions that compare the money spent on programs with later income from taxes and later spending on welfare and prisons. As noted, Prof. Heckman calculated the benefit to cost ratio at Perry and Abecedarian as eight to one, but other scholars have put the ratio at about 2:1, and even that may be too high. Robert Weissberg, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, has written that “this is advocacy research” and “biases are everywhere.” “Faulty assumptions are just piled one on top of another.” Prof. Nisbett has conceded, “a huge amount of research needs to be done to establish whether something like the Perry or … Abecedarian program would be effective and feasible if scaled up to national proportions.”
Only a small number of students participated in the Perry and Abecedarian programs. Between 1972 and 1977 there were a combined total of 111 mostly African American children in Abecedarian’s full-time program and in the control group. And there were only 123 students in the Perry study: 58 Perry students and 65 in the control group. If even a few of these children had atypical experiences, the overall results would be out of kilter. And although Abecedarian’s interventions were intensive, with one adult for every three infants and toddlers and one adult for every six of the three- and four-year olds, the results were not spectacular.
In her book It Takes a Village (1996), Hillary Rodham Clinton reported that the average IQ of the Abecedarian three-year-olds was 17 points higher than that of the control group. Mrs. Clinton did not mention that by age eight the advantage had faded to three points. Meanwhile, 43 percent of the Perry graduates were employed at age 40, compared with 35 percent of the control group, and 21 percent of the Perry graduates had been arrested more than five times, compared with 31 percent of the control group. According to Prof. Fuller of Berkeley, who calculated the costs of the program, “exposure to Perry explains less than 3 percent of all the variation in earnings … and about 4 percent of the variability in school attainment levels.”
Like so many results that advocates of environmental change celebrate, they appear to fade after a few years.
Today’s emphasis on early childhood and pre-K education would appear to be only the latest cunningly contrived irony. In the 1970s and 1980s many white parents protested against the favorite school reform of those decades. They said court-ordered busing interfered with communities and with their liberty to direct the upbringing and education of their children.
Today, school reform has reached the point where many Hispanic and African American parents, for reasons that in some respects resemble those of white parents a generation ago, are uneasy about proposals that would place very young children in childcare for long periods of time. Just as they did in the era of busing, the reformers think they know best. But given the precariousness of the social science research and the expense of the early childhood programs, there is reason to be skeptical. Among the skeptics are Hispanic and African American leaders and parents who naturally do not want others to take over the job of rearing their children.