Art Rolnick and the Push for Universal Preschool

 Analysis and Commentary

by Karen R. Effrem, MD and Julie M. Quist – EdWatch Board of Directors

Art Rolnick presents his preschool proposal to legislators and to the community at large as a private-sector solution to early childcare issues, through the use of business scholarships.  This interview and our added comments attempt to demonstrate that his proposal, far from being a private solution, is part and parcel of a well-orchestrated national effort to establish a government-controlled early childhood system, with business playing a significant role. His plan assumes and parrots the flawed data that universal preschool advocates endlessly repeat about a childcare crisis.  His “return on investment” is intended to sell limited-government legislators on a new, massive expenditure of state and federal money that establishes a government bureaucracy over families and preschool children.

[For the full interview, see: EdWatch comments are in red.]

My co-author and colleague at the Bank, Rob Grunewald, and I looked at the literature on interventions using high-quality ECD programs with at-risk children. In addition, we also looked at the research on brain development, a totally independent line of work. And both lines of research all came together in a way that said, if done right, high-quality, parent focused, ECD programs that began at birth can make an extraordinary difference in outcomes both for the child and society.

We found excellent longitudinal studies on ECD programs, as well as related studies, that strongly suggest there's a very high public return, but you must invest at birth and you must do it right.

[Note: Rolnick is talking about government intervention beginning at birth.  The Abecedarian Project, which is the study that everyone points to, costs something on the order of $20,000 per child per year and only had miniscule improvements in IQ that could not be directly attributed to the intervention. He only references the positive interpretations of these studies, and does not reference the numerous negative studies. His research is not grounded in the facts. For another example, he mentions parent focused programs or two- generation programs like ECFE.  The non-partisan Minnesota Legislative Auditor said of these programs in their 2001 evaluation of Minnesota’s programs “Studies of two-generation programs have generally found small or no effects on child development, although many have reported some positive impact on parenting skills.”]

What we mean by ‘do it right’ is that ECD programs must be high quality to get the high returns. They must incorporate master level teachers and regular home visits and they must focus on the parent(s). If done right, especially for at-risk children, these studies show dramatic differences. ECD children are much less likely to be retained in the first grade, much less likely to need special education, much more likely to be literate by the third grade, much more likely to complete high school, get a good job, raise a family and much less likely to commit a crime. In addition, related studies confirm that within three or four years you can see dramatic improvement in at-risk children's outcomes.

[Note:  “At risk” is never well-defined. Assessments must be done on all children to find who is at risk.  Also, notice that Rolnick says, “If done right, especially for at-risk children, these studies show dramatic differences.” He is not just talking about at risk children.  He seems to want it for all, but just emphasizes it for at-risk.  Although Perry, which is the other study he cites most, finds some improvement for children compared to the control group, they did poorly compared to mainstream children: 1/3 of Perry children dropped out of high school; nearly 1/3 of Perry children were arrested; and 60% of Perry children received welfare assistance as adults.  Also, both the Head Start studies and the latest study from Fuller, et. al. from Berkley published in 2006 have shown that the effects of preschool, to the extent they are there at all, do not last beyond third grade at best.

David Boulton: Implicitly what we're saying is that it's how ready children are for school. Is that right?

Arthur Rolnick: Absolutely.

[Note: “Ready for kindergarten” is defined based on government derived attitudes and values.  And even the so-called academic outcomes are subjective and impossible to accurately measure. This is the major flaw of this entire system.  Just look at what they attempt to measure on the Minnesota Kindergarten Readiness Assessment that is based on the Early Childhood Indicators of Progress, the outcomes of which include gender identity, environmentalism, multiculturalism, mental health and the arts.  All children will be subject to “assessments” in order to have the required data to identify the need for interventions. This puts the state in charge of evaluating our children and for setting norms in many areas and about attitudes in which the state  should never be involved, much less for three and four year old children.]

Family Learning Environments:

David Boulton: So, in some respects, what we're saying is that we need to do this in order to compensate for variations in the family. How much of this is really about the family learning environment?

Arthur Rolnick: I think most of it is. And the problem is mostly related to poverty. It isn't that early education isn't important for every child. But clearly, in middle and upper middle class families a high percentage of children are brought up in a positive environment. They've got both the social and language skills to start school ready to learn. [The problem is mostly related to family. Intact, two-parent families are the highest indicator of success in school, job, and community.  Many researchers have pointed to this issue.  If it were only poverty, why did we not see a crime epidemic during the Depression? Broken families are the biggest source of poverty, especially in the children of broken homes.  Sexual promiscuity and pornography play a prominent role in the breakdown of marriages.]

Resistance to the Argument – Parental Involvement is Key:

David Boulton: Have you begun to identify what the resistance is to appreciating the underlying argument?

Arthur Rolnick: Well, one type of resistance comes from people on the far right of the political spectrum. They're worried that we're going to take children away from their families. I point out that the research strongly suggests that parent involvement is a key factor in getting the kind of return we're talking about. We're not talking about taking children away from low-income families, just the opposite. We're talking about working with the family because the studies show you've got to get the parents engaged. 

[Note: Name-calling and straw man argument. The issue isn’t taking children away, although the Abecedarian Program that both Rolnick and Haskins support essentially puts babies in a high intensity preschool 8 hours per day starting at age 4 months.  But it is putting the state in charge of what families teach their kids. It’s one thing to have a private agency helping with scholarships.  It’s quite another to have the state defining outcomes, assessing our children, and intervening with home visits and parent education and the state’s idea of standards when they don’t measure up.]

Essentially, you're educating the parent on parenting and it's a critical component. The programs that we are advocating include home visits by a high-quality mentor at the earliest age possible. The brain development researchers will tell you that in the most stressful environments the damage to the brain is the most severe; waiting until the child turns three is too late. So, we're aiming to get mentors into families shortly after the birth of the child.

When we talk about high quality programs, therefore, we mean home visits and we mean parent education as well as child education.

[Note: Public money. Home visiting happens already in identified situations such as child abuse, most of which do not work. Expanding home visits is already becoming invasive for many families who have no need for the state to be intervening in their families in areas of philosophy where the state has no right or authority to be setting norms. State-defined outcomes are not benign.  In addition, many home visiting programs do not work.  A comprehensive evaluation of home visiting programs done by the National Physician’s Center found that six control group studies showed no decrease in child abuse rates and that comprehensive services can cost up to $47,000 per family, while showing no improvement in the cognitive development of the child.]

These kinds of programs have a high upfront cost, but they yield an extraordinary public rate of return.

Scholarships for At-Risk Children:

Arthur Rolnick: We've argued, in a second essay, that we need a system that allows us to bring ECD up to scale. I'll give you a specific proposal we're making for Minnesota and you'll see what I mean by "up to scale."  We want to make these programs permanently available for every at-risk child in the state of Minnesota. So we ask: How do we provide an effective ECD program for all of Minnesota’s at- risk children today and in the future?   

[Note: “all at-risk children.” The definition of at-risk has been either non-existent, or vague and broad. See above.]

To ensure permanency, we suggest that the state create an endowed fund to provide scholarships for our estimated 14,000 at-risk children in Minnesota. We estimate that we need about $1.5 billion for such an endowment. The scholarships would go to the families. They would be tuition-plus scholarships.  That is, they would include tuition to a high-quality ECD program, plus a mentor that would make regular home visits.

David Boulton: So you're trying to make a kind of voucher birth-K?

Arthur Rolnick: Yes. But for obvious political reasons, we call them scholarships.

David Boulton: Okay. I understand the mechanism.

Arthur Rolnick: The idea is that the scholarships will pay for performance, so that we expect these kids to be ready. The whole point of this program is to get kids ready for school. Minnesota has a readiness test right now and fifty percent of our kids do not pass that test. Most of those kids fall behind and never catch up. We've got pretty good data on that.

[Note: This data is false. The Commissioner herself has debunked this idea of 50%.  The assessment is subjective, vague, favors feminine behavior, assesses many controversial, non-academic psychosocial areas and is useless to genuinely evaluate a child’s academic readiness for school. Rolnick has bought into this entire R4K agenda.]

So, we're saying to ECD providers who are looking for funding, “Look, as a provider, if you're good, you're going to get the scholarship kids, you're going to get this money. But you've got to produce."

[Note: This is the QRS, as well as the flawed assessment discussed above. It is based on the state politically correct outcomes, The Early Childhood Indicators of Progress.  It puts the state in an oversight position of independent and religious preschool, and it penalizes preschools that don’t comply with the state outcomes either because the curriculum is non-academic or for reasons of conscience.]

When I present it that way, I have no trouble getting the business community supporting these efforts. In fact, we have an organization here in Minnesota of business leaders that are promoting early education and scholarships. And in a number of states I have created some interest in creating an endowed fund that would do something like this. 

As far as opposition to these ideas, I wouldn’t say it was strong.  I think it is simply a problem with the lack of understanding about the importance of ECD.

Resistance to the Argument - Assessment:

Arthur Rolnick: The other form of opposition is assessment. We're not talking high-stakes testing. We're talking about these school readiness tests, which are not high-stake. But there are experts in the field that are very concerned that we're going to be doing high-stakes testing on three and four year old kids and we're not.  Moreover, we will learn from these assessments.

David Boulton: The more that we move in this direction, the more that we’ll develop methods of assessment that are not too intrusive or onerous or scary.

Arthur Rolnick: Right.

David Boulton: Those are not solid reasons.

Arthur Rolnick: No, and there is no way that either government or business is going to fund ECD programs today without some assessment. 

[Note: Public money. State defined radical and politically correct social as well as horribly vague academic outcomes. See above. There is also the philosophical debate that no one is mentioning that about whether the state should be involved in setting any kind of norms for young children, even if they are academic.  Rolnick is ignoring the research starting in the 1950’s and 1960’s that shows that too early an involvement in academics and too much time away from parental care at this age is harmful to children emotionally and academically.  Here are two examples:

A 2002 study NICHD followed a group of more than 1,300 children in 10 different states through their first seven years of life and found that children who spend more hours per week in non-parental childcare have more behavior problems, including aggressive, defiant and disobedient behavior in kindergarten.

“Attendance in preschool centers, even for short periods of time each week, hinders the rate at which young children develop social skills and display the motivation to engage classroom tasks, as reported by their kindergarten teachers...Our findings are consistent with the negative effect of non-parental care on the single dimension of social development first detected by the NICHD research team [in 2002].”- Fuller, et. al. 11/05  (This references the study immediately above.)]

David Boulton: Yes, those days are ending.

Arthur Rolnick: Yes. But anyways, that's the opposition I've had. There are of course the people who are just worried this is going to cost a lot of money, and people who are worried about government spending money. And I say, "Give me the state’s economic development budget. I can get a much better return on that money."

David Boulton: That's the real heart of the case. And that’s the level that's going to inspire business and shift government policy. We will get more and more traction the more we have evidence behind the fundamental financial case.

Universal Pre-K:

David Boulton: Relative to this, we've noticed in California they're moving fast towards establishing a pre-K system, particularly for four year olds. That's what the latest Rand Report, commissioned by the Packard Foundation, recommended for California. That’s a step in the right direction on one level, but it's also institutionalizing this at a latter stage of the ‘sensitive window.' In other words, the information on vocabulary is showing that it's exploding late in the second year, and then throughout the third year. And that the third year's development of language is critical to everything else.

Arthur Rolnick: Yes, I like the way you said it. A universal four year-old early education is a good first step. I'm not sure it's the best first step, though. The programs that we argue for are focused on at-risk families, birth to five, with regular home visits by highly qualified mentors. The scholarships are tuition-plus. The plus is the mentor. The tuition can be used by the family when the child turns three to enroll in a high-quality early education school.

It’s a program that covers birth to five. If you just aim at enrolling four year olds, and if you do it universal, you end up subsidizing many families that don't need it; that is, the public return is low. Moreover, the universal four year old program is starting too late in many cases. So, while I think the universal four year old program is a good step, I think the investment with the highest return is birth to five focused on the at-risk families.

[Note: Rolnick does not oppose universal preschool. He is simply opposed to its timing and financial availability. Rolnick is ignoring all of the dangers of massive government oversight of early childhood and all of the studies that raise red flags. Family environments in intact families are always what government policy should favor. Never the reverse. The data is there to support that.]