Clinging to a Clunker

Posted on January 09, 2006 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Thomas C. Patterson
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The media and the political left often portray conservatives as intellectually backward and anti-scientific. But defenders of the education status quo insist on disregarding evidence-based conclusions when it comes to their pet educational programs. Both all-day kindergarten and early childhood education are "reforms" especially subject to conclusions based on political calculations and anecdotes, rather than empirical proof.

Gov. Janet Napolitano is particularly fond of referring to the "overwhelming evidence" that all-day kindergarten is critical to academic outcomes. The teachers’ unions know all about that mystical mountain of evidence, as do the always dependable education researchers at our colleges of education. In what appears to be an echo chamber effect, the Chamber of Commerce now touts all-day K as a key to our economic future! So do the self-appointed advocates of more government spending on children. Pundits commonly assume brighter new days are ahead for Arizona school students because of the salutary effects all-day kindergarten will exert. It’s all in the research, they proclaim.

But one senses a problem when politicized advocates persist in referring to massive evidence but never actually produce it. Here’s the reason: it doesn’t exist. Virtually every study of all-day kindergarten shows short-term achievement gains (no surprise there) but these fade as early as third grade. As Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, points out, the research evidence simply does not show any longer-term benefit for this costly program.

The Arizona Department of Education actually agrees. Their comprehensive review of existing research showed "an insufficient number of well-designed research studies documenting the duration of full-day kindergarten effects beyond second grade."

Don’t misinterpret the careful language. There have been plenty of studies. There have been an "insufficient number" that show any benefit.

By far the most comprehensive single study of children’s educational growth is the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ELCS), conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education. This study tracks 22,782 students in 1,277 schools who entered kindergarten in 1998. The 2004 report actually found a small effect from all-day K, but not the one advocates were expecting. Students who had attended full-day kindergarten actually scored slightly worse in reading, writing and science. A follow-up report will be out soon.

Moreover, all-day K is another one of those educational reforms that has already been tried and found wanting. In the last three decades, participation in it has gone from under 10 percent to over 50 percent. But reading scores for that period have been flat. In international comparisons, American students still enter school ahead of their peers, but fall steadily behind as they progress through the grades. More kindergarten and preschool are exactly the wrong solution aimed at the wrong problem.

So what do the Legislature’s education leaders think about the lack of evidence that all-day K produces substantial benefit? Sen. Toni Hellon, R-Tucson, chairwoman of the Senate K-12 Education Committee, doesn’t bother to argue the point. In fact, she says, common sense dictates that any benefits would diminish with time and chides those who expect otherwise. "We are expecting these students to hold that edge through what? College?" she rhetorically asked the Arizona Capitol Times.

But for Hellon, the lack of lasting benefit is no problem. To her, implementation of this program costing hundreds of millions of dollars should be accelerated "instead of dragging it out year to year." Go figure.

Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, the House K-12 Education committee chairman, also concedes the lack of conclusive data. So is that a caution to this former education reform leader? Not at all. "We’re here to do the best we can to do what the people want us to do" and that’s all-day K, is his attitude now. Rep. Anderson once had a far more principled view of his stewardship in office.

If the politicians can’t seriously defend all-day K on educational grounds, what explains their eagerness to spend the big bucks on this particular program? The teachers unions, always a political force to reckon with, would obviously like the resultant growth in their membership and influence. Parents dealing with the vagaries of child care are unlikely to oppose what is at worst constructive supervision of their five-year-olds. And citizens generally, desperate for improvement and deluged with misinformation from authority figures, indicate support.

Still, our leaders should know better than to pour huge resources into a program of so little demonstrated benefit. That money could buy a lot of something that actually works. When politics trumps evidence, the money is wasted and another generation of students suffers.

East Valley resident Tom Patterson ( pattersontomc@cox.net ) is a retired emergency room physician, former state senator, and chairman of the Goldwater Institute.

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