July 17, 2018

BLAME THE MESSENGER: A large, longitudinal, randomized, controlled study recently found that Tennessee’s pre-kindergarten program for low-income children had modestly NEGATIVE effects on academic achievement once the children were in the third grade. The program participants also had more disciplinary problems than non-participants, most of whom had stayed at home that year rather than participating in some other program. This is, of course, disappointing, especially since the study had found positive effects when measured at the end of the pre-kindergarten year. But those effects faded over time and turned negative.

There are several different, plausible explanations for these results. I will leave it to you to read the study or its summary for that. Instead, I want to draw your attention to yet another case of bullying researchers who get politically incorrect results. Authors Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey commented on the vitriol to which they have been subjected:

[Our] findings were not welcome.  So much so that it has been difficult to get the results published.  Our first attempt was reviewed by pre-k advocates who had disparaged our findings when they first came out in a working paper – we know that because their reviews repeated word-for-word criticisms made in their prior blogs and commentary.  We are grateful for an open-minded editor who allowed our recent paper summarizing the results of this study to be published (after, we should note, a very thorough peer review and 17 single-spaced pages of responses to questions raised by reviewers).  We are also appreciative of the objective assessment and attention to detail represented in the Straight Talk review.

It is, of course, understandable that people are skeptical of results that do not confirm the prevailing wisdom, but the vitriol with which our work has been greeted is beyond mere scientific concern.  Social science research can only be helpful to policy makers if it presents findings openly and objectively, even when unwelcome.

We share with our colleagues a commitment to the goal of providing a better life for poor children.  Blind commitment to one avenue for attaining that goal, however, is unnecessarily limiting.  If pre-k is not working as hoped and intended, we need to roll up our sleeves and figure out what will work, with solid research to guide that effort.

Here’s a question worth knowing the answer to: How much of the vitriol was coming from individuals with a financial stake in the continuation of government-subsidized pre-kindergarten programs for low-income children?  As always, the more that gets spent on any government program, the harder it is to turn the spigot off.

By the way, as one might guess, there is similar vitriol aimed at researchers—like UCLA’s Richard Sander—who question the effectiveness of race-preferential admissions at increasing the number of minority professionals.  Some of it comes from people whose jobs depend on maintaining the status quo.