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Betting on Head Start

If you haven’t heard of it, the Perry Preschool project was an early-intervention program for children from disadvantaged families that was run out of Perry Elementary School in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s. A forerunner of the federal Head Start program, the project has long been considered a success. Recent reanalyses of program data also show that it provided a pretty good bang for the buck. Studies estimate the rates of return to be about 16 percent to 17 percent.

In a new working paper, however, Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman and colleagues suggest those earlier estimates might have been a little too generous. In their paper, posted at the Web site for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economists argue that the previous analyses were flawed because of problems in the randomization process for the original experiment, missing data and costs, and a failure to calculate standard errors.

When they account statistically for all those issues, they come up with a rate of return that falls somewhere between 7 percent and 10 percent. That’s still better than zero, but not nearly as exciting as 16 percent or 17 percent. Look for this study to figure heavily in debates over President Obama’s plans to expand the federal Head Start program. —Debra Viadero


Malia’s “A” for Effort

President Barack Obama is a strong supporter of performance pay. In his recent visit to a charter school in Madison, Wis., the president took the opportunity to remind the nation that teachers should be evaluated in relation to their students’ test scores. He then “went off script” to tell everyone that his daughter Malia came home from school with a 73 on a science test. Logic should have compelled the president to demand an immediate investigation of Malia’s teacher, who had obviously failed in her responsibility to make Malia an A student. But, no, the president said that Malia, apparently upset by her low grade, had “started wanting [the higher score] more than us,” and on her next science test, she got a 95. The president did not seem to realize that his little family story had undermined his campaign to blame teachers if students did not score well. Malia got a low score initially because she didn’t try hard enough, not because her teacher was ineffective. —Diane Ravitch

See all Education Week blogs.

Vol. 29, Issue 12, Page 6

Published in Print: November 18, 2009, as Blogs of the Week
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