Exiting the Progressive Matrix: Preschool Edition

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Recently stumping for his cooperative federalism model of government-funded preschool, Barack Obama claimed that more money should be spent on these programs so that, in effect, women wouldn’t have to stay at home to take care of children. They should be working as the family’s core functions should be institutionalized by the state. This, of course, confirms what many on the Right think about these types of programs. They are back-door ways to ensure government gets more time with your children and you get more time at work, which you’ll need to pay the taxes for this program and the many other progressive bureaucracies.

Taking a different tack is Indiana Governor Mike Pence who says “This is a heart issue for me” when he urges renewal of his pilot program for government-funded preschool education.

Does that mean evidence-based debate on the subject is heartless? Well we’ll see.

Currently, the program serves five of Indiana’s counties and is limited to families with incomes equal to or lesser than 127 percent of the poverty level. By Pence’s lights, that’s not much heart. Of course, thinking with your heart, or what is really a concession to progressive political psychology, can result in deeply illogical policy outcomes. Pence decided to forego serious enlargement of the heart in the form of up to $20 million dollars of federal money that would have funded a much more extensive “early education” program.

Why leave federal dollars on the table when you have claimed that such a program is instrumental to the education of poor children? The justification Pence has provided reflects, apparently, his desire to protect a state-based approach that would have been contaminated by Washington. He has a point if 1) you think government-financed preschool/daycare is integral to educating children, and 2) you’re interested in an experimental state-based approach that might lead to better results than most states have achieved. I’ll lodge two criticisms here.

Captain obvious:  The purported efficacy of early education programs can only be demonstrated by use of a microscope. It also requires us to place deep faith in researchers using study methods that aren’t optimal. In short, as David Armor counsels us, beware of social scientists touting public policies with test results reached through non-experimental methodologies like Regression Discontinuity Design.

The largest example is Head Start, a legacy of LBJ’s Great Society. Its own studies fail to find that the $8 billion-a-year program has actually increased education outcomes for poor students under its tutelage. The last study was released in December 2012 and showed that there was very little in cognitive gains that separated Head Start students from students of similar background who went without its ministrations. Infer what you will, but common sense dictates that the content of what students learn in grades 1-3 is much more than what they learn in a preschool program, allowing most students to catch up rather quickly. Armor argues that a crucial reason why preschool programs fail to realize lasting results “is that children in early elementary school are in their major development years, and they are learning four times as much material during a regular school year as they do in the preschool years.” Call it the sponge effect.

More significant, however, is the lack of policy thinking displayed here. Keep in mind that Pence is or considers himself to be a conservative. For him, the options would appear to be either following the standard preschool governmental model found in  a majority of states, or what we might call a softer governmental model—one that directs most low-income parents to stick their children in the designated and approved government preschool.

It is one more wearisome instance of man and the state being the only entities recognized by our public policy. The mediating institutions somehow disappear. In few policy areas is this truer, in fact, than in government preschool efforts. Moreover, this policy would deploy public spending, government programs, and bureaucrats, all to produce a more egalitarian society of individuals.

Conservative politicians always seem caught in this matrix, merely reactive to it. Pence is no exception.

Left out of consideration is a substantively different sort of social order that would build on our personhood and its thick and much more complicated relational content. The Pences of the world ignore it and the progressives are actively against it. What we need are policies that can give support to the relational capacity of citizens to live lives that are free of direct intervention by government.

Peter Lawler and I argue in our recent National Affairs essay that

our economic and political liberty can only be affirmed as good for those who deploy their liberty in the service of purposeful and relational lives. Every human being, in truth, is a free economic actor, a citizen, someone’s child (and maybe someone’s parent), and a creature of God. Political activity should largely be about protecting and expanding the space for . . . people to live out their full relational identities.

We shape ourselves and others by participating in these realms—in fact, by governing ourselves in these realms—which, in turn, gives our freedom meaning and purpose.

What does this mean for education?

What we call “public education” is just a funding designation. Education hasn’t been truly public, meaning for and about people in communities, for some time. Instead, much of its work is centralized in state agencies that perform the real work of curriculum design, testing, accreditation and licensing of teachers. This command process shapes a state’s overall educational enterprise. Common Core ups this ante by moving curriculum and testing to a federal process of oversight, and, in terms of philosophy, commits to the notion that education is no different from technological production. What works in Kansas will work in California. And above all let’s serve the needs of the employers of those and the other 48 states.

If we take the free and relational capacity of human persons seriously, however, we begin to question this model of education. We look rather to public funding of some kind, but place control of the dollars at the lowest possible level—beginning with parents and the associations and schools they choose to educate their children. Charter schools are a good start, but the revolution they could bring about is still greatly limited by a host of inbuilt incentives and controls all designed to control the delivery of education. For examples of the problems faced look to the PTA associations, which are heavily influenced by teacher unions. Charter schools are under constant pressure by these same unions and the government school bureaucracy and infrastructure that resents the freer hand they have to operate with.

The implications for early education emerge in a similar light. What do lower-income parents with toddlers and young children most want with regard to education? How much better than the conventional model of telling them what they need would be an approach that gives support to their actual choices. Affording parents some combination of vouchers, tax deductions, or credits for education would be best, while also requiring parents to fund their choices with some of their own money.

What sort of market would emerge for this type of education if people were making their own choices? How does this design for education get shaped by the recognition of the primacy of families, associations, churches, and private preschool providers as the entities most important in education?

This model would not call for the creation of new governmental agencies, the hiring of more bureaucrats to build the infrastructure. Instead, the policy’s aim is to support the relational flourishing of citizens in their primary and foundational context as parents, spouses. Truly limited government recognizes that its role is to serve this flourishing, not dictate to it.

Reader Discussion

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on November 06, 2014 at 09:58:03 am

What a wonderful article. I wonder what the political landscape would be if we had a candidate that actually ran on a platform of the individual using their intellect and freedom of thinking to make choices instead of always what government is going to do. The whole "free market" model is government driven, not individual driven. Somehow I think there is a potentially successful campaign platform in there. Tuesday's election results reflect a complete rebuke of big government policies. The American spirit of freedom is still alive! Maybe JFK's notion of "ask not what your country can do for you...." could be updated to something like, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what responsibility can you take for yourself."

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Joseph Crannell
on November 06, 2014 at 17:41:59 pm

While these thoughtful observations by Richard Reinsch may appear as social commentary, rather than related to law and individual liberty, there is a thread of tenuous connection in the references to the relationships involved in the subject matter of providing education in the development of our social order (particularly our American social order) in accordance with individuality of capacities, motivations and choices that are elements of individual liberty. The uses of governmental and other social structures to constrain those elements through legislation, regulation and requirements for conformity are also involved.

So, what are some of the relationships that should be examined?

Is education a collective process to be provided by collective means to individuals for *collective* purposes (social objectives)? If so, how, and by whom, are those collective purposes and those means to be determined? What motivations and objectives will determine those purposes and the selections of means?

If we look carefully at the operational context of Charter Schools we can observe a particular set of concerns with the parent-child relationship in that operational context. Some Charter contexts require a particular level and kind of parent-child relationship for admission qualification. Other Charter contexts determine the necessity to establish particular levels and kinds of parent-child relationships as part and parcel of the educational process. In the collective education processes there are no such determinations of those relationships although it has been well established that the variations of those relationships for those admitted into the collective system have a demonstrable effect upon the end process of the collective education process.

In the collective system we should also examine the teacher-pupil, student, class relationships. It has been noted that outstanding influential relationships have been inter-personal and individuated. Their effectiveness appears to have derived from complete disregard for (but not necessarily conflict with) collective or “system” prescriptions and proscriptions.

Collective or “system” prescriptions and proscriptions of relationships in the educational processes (which include those that occur amongst those at the various levels of childhood and adolescence) are apparently established by the very same determinations of purposes and objectives of collective education.

Michael Oakeshott maintained that there is no such thing as collective choice. Anthony de Jasay has offered the modification that collective choices are the choices made by some few for the collective. So far, we seem to be accepting the latter condition.

As a result, we are probably dealing with the problems created by the conception of intelligence as a series of “levels,” rather than differentiations in “kinds.” Limiting the understanding of intelligence as “the ability to learn” or even “the capacity to learn,” rather than recognizing intelligence in living creatures as the capacity to observe bits of information (usually sensory) and to perceive connections between bits of information which then constitute knowledge that is significant to that sentiment being.

In our social order we have and enjoy whole classes of people whose hand, eye, and motor coordinations, vocal coordinations are separately sensed and identified in their several connections in accordance with those kinds of intelligence. A decision that intelligence should be understood only in terms of “levels” is probably essential to the objectives of a collectivist social order. Reliance upon that understanding may be one of the sources of the current beginnings of fragmentation of the collective education system.

Of course, we must accept that we can be guided to perceptions, particularly from prior experiences of others and understanding the ways in which prior perceptions were gained. But those should not be limitations – as is the current temptation in devising curricula.

There can be no prescribed criteria (other than Matthew 22:39) for the determination of relationships. So long as those prescriptions and proscriptions are tolerated the errors will continue.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on November 06, 2014 at 18:27:48 pm

"As a result, we are probably dealing with the problems created by the conception of intelligence as a series of “levels,” rather than differentiations in “kinds.”

" A decision that intelligence should be understood only in terms of “levels” is probably essential to the objectives of a collectivist social order"

That about sums it up. And they who *teach* shall be graded according to the relative attainment of these levels by their pupils - talk about inducing additional / extraneous *motivations* to the "learning process"! Nice little circle we create here.

BTW: Question for posters / commenters:

Should the "state" (such as it is) be involved in the education of its young? It appears at times that many on the right would have us believe that it should not. Yet, it must! How else to transmit the *tradition* and myths of that culture if it is not part of an educational system?
In many instances the impression I get is that we on the right are simply upset because of *who/what* is teaching or being taught - and that appears to be the dismissal of our grand traditions. We stand on the shoulders of countless generations - are we to be pushed off? Perhaps that is what is at issue here!

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.