Before leaving for a weekend getaway, President Barack Obama announced details of a plan to make high-quality preschool available to all American children. It would use federal money to make preschool classes available for more low- and moderate-income children. But the goal would be to persuade states to offer preschool to all who wanted it. The program could cost as much as $10 billion a year — nearly a tenth of the entire federal education budget. Supporters say it would provide long-term benefits to all American children. Critics are concerned about the scope of the program, its quality controls and the criteria for participation. Diane and her guests discuss the president’s plan for universal preschool.


  • Arne Duncan Secretary of Education in the Obama administration.
  • James Heckman Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist.
  • Amy Scott Education correspondent at American Public Media's Marketplace.
  • Douglas Besharov Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States and former Welfare Studies scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


  • 10:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama has proposed the biggest expansion of early childhood education since Head Start was launched nearly 50 years ago. Joining me in the studio to talk about the value of the universal pre-school: Douglas Besharov of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, and Amy Scott of American Public Media's Marketplace, from the University of Chicago, Nobel laureate, economist, James Heckman.

  • 10:07:31

    MS. DIANE REHMI'm sure you'll want to weigh in on our discussion. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email, Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.

  • 10:07:52

    MS. AMY SCOTTGood morning, Diane.

  • 10:07:52


  • 10:07:53

    PROF. JAMES HECKMANGood morning, Diane.

  • 10:07:54

    REHMGood to have you with us. First, before we begin our discussion among the three of you, joining us by phone is President Obama's secretary of education, Arne Duncan. Thanks for joining us, sir.

  • 10:08:11

    SECRETARY ARNE DUNCANGood morning, Diane. Thanks so much for having me back.

  • 10:08:13

    REHMTell me how this program differs from Head Start.

  • 10:08:20

    DUNCANWell, first of all, what we want to do is make sure that all of our children are entering kindergarten and ready to be successful. And I think it's been far too long in education that we've been playing catch-up. So if we could create a much greater access, particularly amongst low-income families and moderate-income families, to high quality pre-K programs and then to full-day kindergarten, I think this is an absolute game-changer in education.

  • 10:08:46

    DUNCANAnd you heard me talk may times, Diane, about the opportunity gap. We have to close the opportunity gap if we're serious about closing the achievement gap. And getting our babies off to a great start is the best investment we could make.

  • 10:09:00

    REHMSo why not concentrate just on low-income areas?

  • 10:09:07

    DUNCANWell, we want to focus first on low-income and moderate-income areas, again, to make sure that those children have access. But the goal, long-term, is to make sure all of our children are entering kindergarten, again, with their academic and social and emotional skills intact.

  • 10:09:25

    REHMBut don't you get into a lot more political problem areas if you make this universal rather than concentrating on areas where it's clearly needed?

  • 10:09:41

    DUNCANWell, again, Diane, we are absolutely going to concentrate on the areas where they're needed the most, in the low-income communities and the moderate-income communities. So that is absolutely our focus.

  • 10:09:52

    REHMBut you're making it universal, are you not?

  • 10:09:59

    DUNCANAgain, the first -- the primary focus, Diane, is on those low and moderate-income families who -- and far too many communities for decades have been denied the kind of high quality early-learning opportunities that can transform those children's life chances. And study after study has shown that for every dollar we invest at the front end, we as a society get back about $7 in the back end. So this is the right thing to do for children which is obviously, first and foremost, the most important thing, but this is the right thing to do for our country as well.

  • 10:10:29

    REHMYou know, I'd never quite understood how you measure that. How do you know that putting $7 in is going to bring you $10 at the other end?

  • 10:10:43

    DUNCANWell, again, the investment is actually better than that, Diane. For every dollar you put in the front end, you get back $7 on the back end. So the return is fantastic. You have some fantastic panelists there. James Heckman has studied this stuff. He's a, you know, an extraordinary academic researcher, and he could walk you through the math of this.

  • 10:11:02

    DUNCANBut when you have children who are prepared to enter kindergarten, they're much less likely to drop out later. They're much more likely to go to college. They're much less likely to become a teenage parent. They're much less likely to go to jail. They're much less likely to go on welfare. And so the long-term dividends, the long-term benefits for society are fantastic.

  • 10:11:23

    DUNCANAnd while I appreciate the president's leadership on this so much, Diane, the benefits, we won't see obviously until long after he and I are gone from Washington. And too often, politicians, you know, think about the short term, you know, what's going to help them, you know, for the next election, whatever. This is a long-term play for the country, and ultimately, I think it could be a hugely important part of President Obama's legacy.

  • 10:11:45

    REHMHere's an email from Vicky, who says, "If Head Start works so well, why is it the current education system is considered such a failure?"

  • 10:11:59

    DUNCANWell, I think Head Start -- Secretary Sebelius, my good friend and partner who runs HHS, is working very hard to increase the quality of Head Start. Again, the goal here is not just access. The goal has to be accessed to high quality early-learning programs, and that's critical in everything we do.

  • 10:12:16

    REHMAnd what do you think the plan is going to cost?

  • 10:12:22

    DUNCANStay tuned. We'll be putting it out in our budget, the president will in the next couple of weeks, and this is a significant investment. But again, I think it's the best investment we can make and return on that investment for taxpayers and for the country and for young people and their families. We think it has a chance to be just extraordinary.

  • 10:12:39

    REHMYou know, you've had Sen. Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, saying that his state's program, which offers free kindergarten -- pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds works because it started locally, is funded locally and doesn't have a single dime of federal money. So why wouldn't you just leave it to the states?

  • 10:13:08

    DUNCANWell, Georgia has done a fantastic job, and Sen. Isakson is a good friend and partner. Our issue, Diane, is that the majority of our young people from disadvantaged communities across this country do not have access. And so what we want to do is put some incentives out there for more states to create access.

  • 10:13:24

    DUNCANAnd again, if we don't do this, if we continue to have children entering kindergarten far behind, we are constantly playing catch-up. We have to get out of the catch-up business. And when the majority of young people in this country desperately need these opportunities and we're not providing them, we pay a great price for that. The opportunity here is to take to scale what we know is working.

  • 10:13:46

    REHMOK. And one last question, going back to the very first question. How does the president's plan for universal preschool differ from Head Start?

  • 10:14:03

    DUNCANAgain, the goal is to try and get many more students engaged. You know, this will strengthen Head Start as well, but we just simply don't have enough children in this country with access to high-quality early learning programs. And we also -- I just want to quickly add, Diane -- want to try and encourage and incentivize more states to go to full-day kindergarten programs.

  • 10:14:22

    DUNCANOnly about six in 10 children around the country have access to full-day K. So we have to look, you know, starting with our babies, you know, zero all the way through kindergarten, if we can make sure students, young people and our children in our families who need the most help have access to high quality all the way through, that's a life-transforming opportunity.

  • 10:14:41

    REHMSecretary of Education Arne Duncan, thanks for being with us on President's Day.

  • 10:14:49

    DUNCANThanks so much. I look forward to the rest of your panel.

  • 10:14:50

    REHMAll right. Thanks again. And now, Amy Scott, turning to you, talk about the state of the nation's government-funded preschool programs today.

  • 10:15:04

    SCOTTWell, Head Start, you talked about, has been criticized for not having lasting gains for students. It's a program -- preschool or pre-kindergarten program for low-income and disadvantaged children. And the Department of Health and Human Services' own research recently concluded that the gains, the benefits did not last, for the most part, beyond third grade. So if you compared children who did Head Start versus those who didn't, there wasn't much that you could tell lasted beyond that year.

  • 10:15:41

    REHMSo how do you think the president's program could or might address that cutoff?

  • 10:15:49

    SCOTTWell, one thing that they're saying is that they want to pay preschool teachers more like what kindergarten or elementary school teacher is making, which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is about twice as much. So if you can pay better, in theory, you could attract better and more qualified teachers.

  • 10:16:09

    REHMTurning to you, James Heckman, I gather you like the president's plan. Tell us why.

  • 10:16:18

    HECKMANI think the president's plan is very ambitious, and I think it's founded on fact. I think it's founded on very hard evidence, some of which I've contributed to. I think the reason why I like the program is that it's actually enriching the kind of offerings that young children are getting, disadvantaged young children are getting. It's actually enriching Head Start in many dimensions. First of all, I think it's going to really insist on basic quality components that I think are currently missing in many Head Start centers.

  • 10:16:46

    HECKMANSecondly, it's going to start earlier in life. And I think that early start has been documented. So there are features that are actually are found even in interventions in children zero to 3, even in prenatal interventions, teaching young mothers not to drink, not to smoke, to take care of their children. So it's really a much more comprehensive program. And finally, on the cost side, it's universal. But be careful. If you look closely at the proposal, it also talks about a sliding fee schedule.

  • 10:17:18

    HECKMANSo yes, you could make it available, but richer families, wealthier families really have to pay their money. And I think that's the important thing when we talk about this program as opposed to others. It's a significant extension, evidence-based, and I think it's actually going to be very fruitful in terms of the economic benefits and the social benefits.

  • 10:17:39

    REHMDoug Besharov.

  • 10:17:39

    HECKMANSo just one last word, if I could...

  • 10:17:40

    REHMOh, sure.

  • 10:17:41

    HECKMAN...and that is it's a very unusual kind of government program, and this is something that I don' think is properly appreciated. Most government programs have so-called tradeoffs. You know, you help the rich but -- and you may stimulate the economy, but the poor don't benefit. This program has a very -- this class of program has a very unusual quality.

  • 10:18:00

    HECKMANIt simultaneously is economically efficient, and I can give you a lot of evidence on that. It pays off seven to 10 percent per annum each dollar invested. So it's -- the stock market between 1945 and 2008 was like six, 7 percent, the same range. Secondly, it actually reduces inequality and promotes social mobility. So it's both equity improving and efficiency improving.

  • 10:18:27

    REHMJames Heckman, he is a Nobel award-winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago. Short break here. When we come back, we'll talk with Doug Besharov, who may have a somewhat different perspective. Stay with us.

  • 10:20:04

    REHMAnd in this hour, we're talking about President Obama's plan to provide high-quality preschool education to all children. There have been lots of comments of support. There have also been some others not quite so supportive. Here in the studio, Amy Scott. She is education correspondent for American Public Media's "Marketplace."

  • 10:20:38

    REHMDouglas Besharov is professor at University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is also with the American Enterprise Institute. And joining us from a studio at the University of Chicago, James Heckman. He is a Nobel Prize-winning professor of economics at the university there. Doug Besharov, what's your view of the president's plan?

  • 10:21:11

    BESHAROVBoy, he's, of course, not the first president who's proposed universal preschool. It was a main element of Hillary Clinton's campaign. It was a major effort under the Clinton administration. This is a -- in fact, it started in the 1970s with the Universal Care Act under Richard Nixon. Each time, the advocates over claimed the benefits. Each time, they underestimated the cost. And each time, they lost the electorate, most recently in California where there was a referendum on universal Pre-K.

  • 10:21:49

    BESHAROVThey were going to tax the rich. People making over $200,000 a year and provide, "universal Pre-K." That referendum, even in tax-the-rich haven California, lost 2-1. Sixty seven percent voted against it. And that's because inherent in the program are contradictions, some of which you pointed out in your questions to Secretary Duncan. Number one, we still don't know how to help low-income kids very well. This $7 benefits, this is a very controversial number.

  • 10:22:20

    BESHAROVThis is not the place to go into it. But there are people who think that's not the case. The ability of the government to run Head Start is quite questionable. More than that, though, as Jim Heckman suggested, implicit in this plan to keep its costs low are mandated sliding scales for the middle class. Once the middle class finds out, number one, that it will lose choices that it will have to put its kids, its preschoolers into one program in the neighborhood as -- at the public school as opposed to choosing where they best put their children, I think they'll lose more support.

  • 10:23:00

    BESHAROVSo to complete this, I wish they would concentrate on helping the low-income kids where the challenges are greatest. We don't know exactly how to do it. And I noticed that Secretary Duncan, every time you said, well, aren't you going to concentrate on low-income, he's stuck in moderate income because these plans go to $100,000 or more of family income. And I'm afraid this is just politics again.

  • 10:23:28

    REHMAmy Scott, what is the rationale for not simply concentrating on low-income students where it would seem to be most useful?

  • 10:23:43

    SCOTTWell, I think might disagree that this program doesn't focus on low income. The way it was pitched in the State of the Union made it sound like universal preschool for all kids. But immediately following the speech, the White House put out a document spelling out some of the details. This is really targeting families that make at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. So for a family of four, that means families earning up to $46,100 per year. So...

  • 10:24:12

    REHMSo not $100,000 as...

  • 10:24:14

    SCOTTThat may be for more children. I would -- I'm not sure about the numbers Doug was using, but -- so that is considered moderate income. But this is not a universal preschool plan. The goal, I think, is to expand it for middle-income children. But on the face of it, I don't see this as universal.

  • 10:24:33

    REHMJames -- go ahead, Doug.

  • 10:24:37

    BESHAROVI just -- because in the president's plan, in -- besides the State of the Union, besides the increase of either Head Start or whatever it is twice the poverty line, they talk in writing about providing subsidies to states, to provide child care under sliding scales for higher income. And that's one of the reasons why Secretary Duncan said he actually didn't have a budget number because it's going to go far beyond this twice the poverty line.

  • 10:25:03

    REHMJames Heckman, wouldn't you think that this would be introduced slowly and little by little, perhaps targeting low-income children first and then moving on up? Or how do you see it?

  • 10:25:21

    HECKMANWell, I think Secretary Duncan already said it, and I would re-affirm that. I think it's in the logic of all the early intervention literature that the most disadvantaged benefit and the expansion to the larger populations -- richer populations would actually occur as individuals pay for that. That's one point, and so I do think that it's -- that the wisdom, the logic, virtually all of the study show the great benefits from the most disadvantaged children. I think that's just the pure logic of what's being opposed -- proposed.

  • 10:25:55

    HECKMANLet me make one comment, though, in terms of what Doug -- my old friend Doug has said. I don't think the studies of ABC and Perry are controversial. I think the arguments that have been raised against them are somewhat specious. I think that people have said samples are very small. Well, small samples, essentially, would bias against finding any results.

  • 10:26:15

    HECKMANAnd, in fact, the results have been found from randomized trials where children are followed into age 40, and now plans will follow to age 50. We have very comprehensive measures of their crime. We have comprehensive measures of their earnings and so forth. So I would defend very strongly these high rates of return because they actually have been carefully evaluated. They include the cost of taxation. They include all of the cost of the public of actually taxing and using tax dollars.

  • 10:26:44

    REHMWhat about the issue of the benefits sort of stopping as of third grade?

  • 10:26:52

    HECKMANNo. The benefit doesn't stop at third grade. In fact, what you can see -- I mean, first of all, let me just go back to the Head Start evaluation. Many people have focused on the recent Head Start evaluation, saying there's no effect. I think the Head Start evaluation is an example of the folly of uncritical use of so-called randomized trials.

  • 10:27:09

    HECKMANIf you look at the treatment group and Head Start and you look at the control group and Head Start, many of the control group people had other Head Start or other preschool programs. What was being compared was apples versus apples. So if you said, yes, there's no difference between apples, that's true. But a competent study of the Head Start program, even the randomized trial, remains to be done. So that's the first point.

  • 10:27:33

    HECKMANSecondly, I would simply say 40 years ago when the first Head Start evaluations were conducted by Westinghouse, the Head Start evaluations were showing no gains in IQ, and therefore, many people said in the late '60s, early '70s, kill Head Start, and hence the notion that somehow the gains were overstated. What we've come to understand is that the greatest benefits of these programs are not on pure academic measures. The Perry program that I talked about had no effects on IQ.

  • 10:28:04

    HECKMANWe've been looking under the wrong street lamp. What we can find is actually that there are significant benefits to social and emotional skills, and the reason work is also showing, into the adult years, improvements in health. So actually, I would argue that the returns are understated. We see lower body mass indexes. We see much higher good cholesterol. We see in many dimensions, and those haven't even been factored in yet into the cost benefit calculations.

  • 10:28:33

    REHMDoug Besharov.

  • 10:28:34

    BESHAROVI was trained as a lawyer. And there are good lawyers and bad lawyers. The bad lawyers only cite the cases on their side. The good lawyers cite all the cases and distinguish the bad cases or the cases off their side. There is a giant literature on both sides of this question. The RAND Corporation has reexamined the cost-benefit analysis. But this is not the place, this program, to get into the interstices of these research studies. The bigger question for America is we have a program for children under poverty.

  • 10:29:10

    BESHAROVIt's called Head Start. Itself needs giant improvement. Perhaps the only way to improve Head Start is to promise a Head Start-like experience for the rest of the country. And that's part of what this proposal is. But please have as part of this proposal fixing Head Start, and that's not part of the big cause. You can't make the sale that way.

  • 10:29:33

    BESHAROVEvery other time the advocates have tried this, which is Head Starts works or Pre-K works, make it universal. Oh, and we'll fix Head Start later. That political argument has failed. We ought to realize that -- excuse me -- that the political argument here is much more complicated. And if we're going to make progress, maybe we should start with a much more improved system that we already have.

  • 10:29:59

    REHMAmy Scott, is income the issue? We have an email here from Kevin, who says, "The well-off do not need this program. They already send their children to the best preschools."

  • 10:30:17

    SCOTTRight. And I would say I'm not sure where Doug's assertion that they will lose choice comes from because I think there will be nothing to stop middle and higher-income people from continuing to send their children to whatever preschool they see fit. I think where this does begin to approach universal preschool is by making it available, affordable to the lower and middle-income families. As President Obama pointed out in his speech -- and I'm well aware as the mother of a 2-year-old -- a private preschool can cost a few hundred dollars...

  • 10:30:50

    REHMWho happens to be here this morning.

  • 10:30:52

    SCOTTThat's right. He's getting child care here, thanks to your generous staff. This preschool can cost a couple hundred dollars a week. And so income, I think, is the big barrier.

  • 10:31:05

    REHMThe other question, James, is the experience of preschool different in urban or rural areas? Do we have any data on that?

  • 10:31:18

    HECKMANThere are some studies. There's a paper by Maria Fitzgerald and the Berkeley Economics and Public Policy Journal suggesting some of the biggest benefits, for example, of the Georgia program came in rural areas, providing access and the like. But could I go back and respond to Doug just for one question?

  • 10:31:34

    REHMSure. Sure.

  • 10:31:36

    HECKMANI think that he's making an argument by innuendo. And I actually think it's really incorrect that actually frames the discussion incorrectly. He's presenting as if somehow we looked only at one or two programs and are presenting only the results from the most successful. As Secretary Duncan has pointed out, high quality is the key word here into making early childhood programs.

  • 10:31:57

    HECKMANIf we actually put in very low-quality programs, just give access, just trying to give a little bit to everybody and not really guarantee quality, we can actually harm children. We know that. Craig Ramey and many of the other people know that. So the emphasis is on quality. We know that when quality programs that have been followed up are consistently showing when they have long-term follow-ups, significant benefits, substantial benefits that survive a variety of robust tests.

  • 10:32:25

    HECKMANBut let me appeal just one last thing -- oops, can I? OK. I think what we're talking about is parenting. And so what I am saying is really understand that a good preschool is really emulating what a good family does. And I think that's what we have to understand. And the evidence on parenting is overwhelming. We have it anecdotally, and we have it experimentally, and we have empirically. Sorry.

  • 10:32:49

    REHMJames Heckman, he's Noble Prize-winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So, Doug Besharov, you've heard James' comments. What's your reaction?

  • 10:33:12

    BESHAROVThe question of quality is quite challenging. Secretary Duncan just now said that the kinds of teachers he wanted will be paid twice what had start teachers would be paid. There's another side to this political process. We are really talking about making preschool a form, a part of the public school system. And paying preschool teachers school teacher salaries, which are in many places twice as high as child care salaries, that will raise the cost of this program.

  • 10:33:48

    BESHAROVSo that's one of the reasons why the unions are in favor of this because it's a very nice way to grow the unions. I want to emphasize -- I'm not going to be going to the argument about what studies or what -- can anyone really believe that if the government goes into pre-K, the cost of pre-K for all Americans won't go up?

  • 10:34:06

    REHMHere's an email from Ken in Cary, N.C. He says, "I'm wondering about the difference between preschool and day care. There's a huge industry providing day care to working parents entirely a private profit. Can you guests address the question of how that industry might oppose a publicly provided universal early learning program?" Amy Scott.

  • 10:34:41

    SCOTTWell, from my understanding, this proposal would also expand early Head Start which is day care for toddlers and would allow, I believe, private providers to compete for funding for that. So there's something in it for day care providers as well. I would think maybe one of your other guests might know more about this.

  • 10:35:04


  • 10:35:06

    BESHAROVThis is one of the problems about fitting this all together. Day care tends to be at least 9:00 to 5:00, 12 months a year because it's for working moms. Preschool will likely be nine months a year. In the programs, we have mostly pure true preschool, they are three or four hours a day. So there'll be a giant problem in connecting the preschool experience for working moms with full-time day care which is also needed.

  • 10:35:35

    REHMJames is shaking his head no.

  • 10:35:40

    HECKMANWell, many of the programs that have been evaluated are actually full time. But I think it's important to understand that warehousing child care programs are fundamentally different from these early childhood programs that the president is proposing. It's really a question of quality, and part of the dimension of quality is length. For example, some of the programs had been full time. But I do believe it's an important issue that frequently gets separated, namely the provision of child care for working women from the issue of child development.

  • 10:36:12

    HECKMANI think these two have to be fused together. And I think the president's program actually does that. So I don't think there's a tradeoff here in any fundamental sense. I think we probably do want to have more comprehensive programs. They've been shown to work. But I also think that we shouldn't -- we should really contrast that child care from quality preschool and quality early childhood interventions.

  • 10:36:36

    REHMBut at the same time, Amy, shouldn't there be concerns about requirements for highly paid preschool teachers? I mean, how different is the challenge teaching preschoolers from teaching high schoolers? I mean, isn't there a huge challenge there as well?

  • 10:36:57

    SCOTTWell, I think it depends -- absolutely. I have to say, I have some personal experience with this. My mother directed what I would say was a high-quality nursery school for 25 years. I know how low paid preschool teachers are, first hand. And so I think the argument that paying teachers better would attract more qualified teachers seems to be a strong one. And I think what we're talking about is requiring a higher level of education and training.

  • 10:37:29

    REHMAmy Scott, she is education correspondent for Marketplace. Short break. When we come back, your calls and emails.

  • 10:40:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. As we talk about elements of the president's plan for what he hopes will be universal preschool making that available to all children. And just to remind ourselves, day care is for working parents and not just for working moms. Let's go first to South Dennis, Mass. Good morning, Ian. You're on the air.

  • 10:40:41

    IANHey. How are you doing?

  • 10:40:42

    REHMGood. Thanks.

  • 10:40:44

    IANI guess the first point I wanted to bring up is just my situation. My daughter is 4 1/2 years old. And my wife and I -- she's in the military -- and we have to balance day care costs versus me going back to work. So for a while, I've been a stay-home dad for 4 1/2 years. And luckily what the Coast Guard does for us is they give us a stipend every year of around $6,000, and we can choose where we can go as far as our day care.

  • 10:41:14

    IANAnd that significantly improved our family life in a sense that our daughter is getting a good education, a head start, I guess, you could say. And I'm also able to go to work and continue my education at the same time. Now, I think that's one point that wasn't brought is the parent is able to go to work if they choose.

  • 10:41:38

    IANI don't think that people should receive, I guess, money towards day care just for the parents to go home, you know, watch morning television and pick up their daughter or their children at the end of the day just so they can have a break. I think that it should be sort of an investment for the parent also to further their employment and their education if they choose so.

  • 10:42:03

    REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Amy, I somehow don't really see that this is what this program's all about.

  • 10:42:12

    SCOTTRight. I think, again, there, you're seeing the difference between day care and preschool. Preschool is about child development, preparation for school. Day care is, you know, so that a parent can work and so the child has someone to take care of them.

  • 10:42:25

    REHMThere's another element that you raised during the break and that's home visitation. Talk about that.

  • 10:42:33

    SCOTTRight. I was interested to see that part of this proposal includes expanding support for voluntary home visiting programs which apparently the White House has already invested $1.5 billion in.

  • 10:42:46

    REHMAnd how would that work?

  • 10:42:48

    SCOTTWell, the -- I did some reporting on one of these programs in Cincinnati. It's called Every Child Succeeds, and it involves a social worker or a trained volunteer visiting the home of at-risk parents. These tend to be teenage moms from pregnancy through age 3 in this case. And they work with the mom on things like prenatal care, how to talk to a child, how to read books.

  • 10:43:14

    SCOTTAnd it's really -- James Heckman mentioned parenting, this being about parenting. It's trying to teach some of those parenting skills that also are shown to help get children off to a good start and to help the parents. So it's sort of a two-generation approach.

  • 10:43:28

    REHMAll right. And let's go to Little Rock, Ark. Good morning, Darlene.

  • 10:43:34

    DARLENEGood morning, Diane. It's a pleasure to be on your great show.

  • 10:43:37

    REHMThank you.

  • 10:43:38

    DARLENEI would like to offer a couple of comments that I wish your panelists would address. The simpler one is let's talk about the nature of kindergarten in the 21st century. To me, it's basically the new first grade, and I think folks around the country need to understand the demands that will be on young children as they enter kindergarten. It's not the cut and paste days of before. My second comment goes to the remarks about the seeming failure of any long-term benefit for children who have been able to participate in Head Start Programs, noting that after third grade, where's the growth?

  • 10:44:22

    DARLENEWe need to look at the differences and the circumstances. At Head Start, there were two adults in the classroom for 20 children. Today, how many children over 20 are in the classroom with one teacher? The children are likely attending a neighborhood school in a high-poverty area, and we already know how difficult and challenging education is in all the classrooms there.

  • 10:44:49

    REHMDoug Besharov, those are some good points, especially those large classrooms that teachers have to confront.

  • 10:44:58

    BESHAROVWell, the tricky part about this "Head Start fadeout" is it's not that the Head Start kids forget, it's that the other kids catch up which is to say the other kids starts scoring at the same level in the third grade. And it puts into question the model. Yes, yes, indeed. It's not that people forget what they had in Head Start.

  • 10:45:21

    BESHAROVThe fadeout effect is that the differences between the Head Start kids and the non-Head Start kids disappear as the non-Head Start kids catch up, right? We -- Jim Heckman and I haven't agreed on much but I sure hope you'll agree on that one. The issue that I'd like -- Darlene raises a very -- go ahead.

  • 10:45:38

    REHMOK. I want to get James to comment on that fadeout effect.

  • 10:45:44

    HECKMANWell, let me be very clear. There are no long-term evaluations of an experimental nature on the Head Start Program. Some that have been non-experimental have shown long-term effects with no question of fadeout. So I do think the issue of fade-out is a little bit specious, and it's still an open question.

  • 10:46:02

    HECKMANBut in the more enriched programs, the ones where a classroom size is smaller, where you're having more teachers per child, sometimes as few as three, when you're down at three children per child in the very earliest years, have shown very, very great and lasting effects. So I do think it's somewhat curious. Can I just make a comment about what Amy was saying about parents?

  • 10:46:26

    REHMAll right. Go ahead.

  • 10:46:28

    HECKMANYou know, I think it's very important that we understand, these programs are working with a family. That involves the parents and their children, and some of the biggest improvements have also come in parenting which then lasts a lifetime with a child. So not only are you producing children who have some motivation, but you're producing parents who now know better how to understand, how to rear children and have guidance. So I think it's important to understand the multiple facets of these programs. I think President Obama has talked about that.

  • 10:46:58

    REHMAll right. Here's an email from Chris in St. Louis, Mo., "I've read evidence that adults who had Head Start are significantly less likely to be incarcerated and more likely to be in stable marriages. So the benefits of Head Start are later in life." Can you comment on this, James?

  • 10:47:27

    HECKMANYes. There are -- as I say, some of the non-experimental studies that track people into adulthood using non-experimental data for sure have shown exactly those kinds of benefits for certain groups. So I do think it's premature to say that Head Start has failed. But I also think that President Obama's program is actually thinking of enriching Head Start and offering a portfolio of programs that are better than what we currently have.

  • 10:47:54

    REHMAll right.

  • 10:47:55

    HECKMANAnd one last question, if I could and this is on salaries and so forth. The argument was made while somehow the proposed idea is that proposed program was going to increase the salary of day care workers. One dimension of quality, one dimension of what a high-quality program is, is the quality of the personnel working with the children. So I would argue that if we want to get really high quality children -- high quality workforce in the early years, I think we really are going to have to pay for what we ask for.

  • 10:48:28

    REHMAnd on that very point, we've had numerous emails about the cost, and Brooks in Greenville, S.C., is saying, "Given the large national debt, should this even be on the table? He or she is skeptical of the government's ability, and maybe the private sector could do it better." Doug.

  • 10:48:56

    BESHAROVWell, I know what my kids pay for child care. But before coming over here this morning, I went online and looked at some of the national reports. And for what some people would call so-so day care, the average cost for day care full time, full year for a 4-year-old is about $10,000. As you move up either in urbanicity -- New York, Washington -- as you move up in quality, you quickly hit $20,000 per year per child.

  • 10:49:26

    BESHAROVWe lived in a world in which federal workers are about to get a 5 percent cut in salary, 73 or $83 billion is about to be cut from the federal budget. I don't think it's realistic to think that this proposal is going to pass while there's a Republican House. The question is, what do we do with this excitement and interest in Head Start and pre-K? And I hope we use this time to take the good look at the issues and improve both programs.

  • 10:49:55

    REHMDoug Besharov, he is professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show. And let's take a caller in Southlake, Texas. Good morning, Leslie.

  • 10:50:16

    LESLIEGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 10:50:18


  • 10:50:19

    LESLIEI was driving along and needed to pull over because I heard another caller calling with a suggestion that we all need to face the fact that kindergarten is the new first grade, and it seems to be her view point that we need to push our kids stronger, harder, faster, earlier.

  • 10:50:41

    LESLIEAnd I would say that my understanding is that would go counter to what is proven to work in countries like Germany, Switzerland and Finland where they have significantly higher rates of literacy. But they start their children reading and doing genuine academic work later. Rather, they have them integrate well socially. They have them engage in very significant creative play, playing a lot of music, art and physical activity. And those children end up surpassing ours significantly later.

  • 10:51:14

    REHMWhat about that, James Heckman? Rather than concentrating on skills like reading and math and that sort of thing, what about just ordinary wonderful play?

  • 10:51:30

    HECKMANPlay is amazingly productive, and it's been documented to have lasting effects in terms of -- but it's the larger issue. It's the larger issue of saying, we want to think about evaluating these interventions and all human scale interventions, not just in terms of a test score or just academic reading but also in terms of the engagement of the individual in the society and in the school for that matter.

  • 10:51:54

    HECKMANSo the Perry kids, for example, were no smarter in terms of IQ, but they actually had higher achievement test because they studied harder. They were engaged. It's that emotional engagement, the attachment that, I think, is missing ingredient from the discussion.

  • 10:52:08

    REHMAmy Scott.

  • 10:52:10

    SCOTTYeah. Well, one thing I'm curious about -- I look forward to learning more -- is about how the federal government will determine quality. One of the things that they say is that programs would have to have a rigorous curriculum. And it does raise some questions. Does that mean we're going to be doing standardized testing for 4 year olds?

  • 10:52:29

    HECKMANNo, no.

  • 10:52:30

    SCOTTAnd I think -- James is saying no, but...

  • 10:52:32

    REHMJames is saying no.

  • 10:52:34

    SCOTT...I think some people do worry about the federal government's involvement given the emphasis on standards and testing in the elementary grades.

  • 10:52:42

    REHMDoug Besharov.

  • 10:52:43

    BESHAROVI think Leslie's comment opens a whole another door here. I think the term -- and I'm guessing here and I should know better -- is red shirting, which is the case that for many middle class families now, the objective is to slow down their children's entry into kindergarten. Many children are being held back and not sent to kindergarten till they're five because many parents think that kids do better when they're a little older in these schools.

  • 10:53:11

    BESHAROVNow, this is not about -- I hear Jim sighing there, Al Gore and so forth, which is really, it cost him the election. Don't do it. This is only another door to what parents see. And what they see is schools pushing too soon and they see their children doing better if they're a little older in school. This is not about the Head Start debate. It's not about not pre-K. But it's about how complicated these years are and how little attention the policymakers are giving to these things that American parents are grappling with today.

  • 10:53:45

    REHMAll right. And finally to Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Helen. You're on the air.

  • 10:53:54

    HELENOK. I have just a comment. I have been -- I am a volunteer. And I actually go into the kindergarten, same teacher in a low-income area. And I evaluate how much the children -- and using exactly the same test material, I evaluate what the children know about the alphabet and about their surroundings and about rhyming words and the same test every year. And last year I noticed -- this year, I noticed a difference in the children.

  • 10:54:28

    HELENAnd so I decided to do my own little survey, and I asked the children -- you know, if they get very well -- and I said, you really know your alphabet. I said, how -- I said, what -- did you go to school last year? And they said, yes. That was the prominent difference. And it gets the kids, and it -- and I talked to the teacher later on, and she -- I said, you're going to have a good year, and she said, yes. She was delighted because the children were so far ahead.

  • 10:55:00


  • 10:55:01

    REHMGo ahead.

  • 10:55:01

    SCOTTThere is a big push in Cincinnati to get kids to kindergarten ready to learn Success By 6 run by United Way, and it's a collaboration with many organizations. So it's interesting that this volunteer is seeing results.

  • 10:55:13

    REHMBut, you know, a lot of that -- isn't that done at home? Isn't that done with a parental or, you know, somebody's involvement? I mean, I do wonder about placing that -- saying that all comes from preschool education.

  • 10:55:36

    HECKMANOh, I think the issue that you're raising is the difference between -- and we used these code words -- middle class and low income. There are some parents, they tend to be middle class, who enrich their children's experience from the day they're born, in fact, while in the womb, right, with Mozart, radio playing and all that business.

  • 10:55:54

    HECKMANAnd there are other parents who do not provide the kind of support in nurturing and education before school. And the idea of Head Start has always been to make up the difference. And that's part of the issues here which is we have some parents who are doing all this enriching, some parents who aren't, and we're trying fit them both into the same kind of program. One's going to have to make adjustments, and we'll make them.

  • 10:56:20

    REHMDo you think we'll make them, James? Very quickly, please.

  • 10:56:24

    HECKMANWell, I think the proposal of the president is exactly to offer a flexible menu. I really disagree with the idea that this is a one-size-fits-all. In fact, the proposal that the president has offered is actually asking for local incentives, local initiatives, to let 100 flowers bloom, to see which model works best. So I think that the idea that somehow there's a single program -- precisely I agree with Doug, though. What we have in America is a gap between the middle class and the disadvantaged, and these programs go towards filling that gap.

  • 10:57:00

    REHMJames Heckman, he's Nobel Prize-winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago. Amy Scoot is education correspondent for American Public Media's Marketplace. Doug Besharov is at the University of Maryland and the American Enterprise Institute. Thank you all so much.

  • 10:57:26

    SCOTTThank you very much.

  • 10:57:27

    HECKMANThank you.

  • 10:57:27

    BESHAROVThank you.

  • 10:57:29

    REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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