Universal Pre-K: Mozart for Babies All Over Again?

Education myths can be pervasive and costly.


Two decades ago, psychologist Frances Rauscher conducted an experiment in which she asked 36 college students to listen to different kinds of music before visualizing how a folded-up piece of paper would look when cut and then unfolded.

The results seemed to suggest Mozart might improve spatial reasoning. Nothing earth-shattering there — yet this one small study inspired a nationwide craze. Through something like a national version of the children's game of telephone, countless Americans glommed on to the idea that playing Mozart to a child in the womb would boost his or her IQ.

A new industry was born. What Amazon now calls the "baby brain-booster category" of consumer products soon grew crowded. Inevitably, politicians jumped on the bandwagon. Georgia Gov. Zell Miller directed that classical music recordings be sent home with new mothers. Florida mandated that state day care centers play symphonies.

Just one small problem: None of that had any scientific basis. True, babies can recognize music they hear in the womb for several weeks following birth. But this does not boost a child's IQ. Six years ago, Scientific American reported that a German review by "a cross-disciplinary team of musically inclined scientists … declared the (Mozart effect) phenomenon nonexistent." Even Rauscher, author of the original study, called the idea that playing music to a fetus will make it smarter "really a myth."

Study after study has reached the same conclusion. Yet companies still pitch the idea of piping tunes into the womb, and parents still lap it up.

Something similar may be going on now — with pre-kindergarten.

Back in February, President Obama proposed "working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child inAmerica. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime."

The claim was bunk. But the president's proposal enjoys growing support.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine recently penned an op/ed supporting the Start Strong forAmerica's Children Act — a "10-year federal-state partnership to expand and improve early childhood education." Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe favors expanding pre-K, too. The support crosses red-team/blue-team lines: The Virginia Chamber of Commerce would like the state to "improve access to high-quality early childhood education," and it was a Republican governor, George Allen, who launched the Virginia Preschool Initiative.

In his op/ed column, Kaine repeated the standard arguments: "Pre-K is good for the economy"; "early learning programs make it more likely that children will do well in elementary school"; and so on. It would be nice if we had an experiment somewhere to test the validity of those claims.

We do. It's called Head Start. The United States has spent more than $160 billion on that early education program for at-risk children. The results are amazing — as in amazingly poor.

In 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services reported on a congressionally mandated study of approximately 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds who were randomly assigned to either a control group or a group that had access to a Head Start program. It found that "at the end of kindergarten and first grade . . . the Head Start children and the control group children were at the same level on many of the measures studied."

Last year, HHS issued the results of another randomized study. It, too, found that Head Start produced "little evidence of systematic differences" in children's elementary school experiences through third grade.

It's pretty damning when the federal government itself concludes that a federal program doesn't work. But if you're still not convinced, consider a recent piece by Grover Whitehurst of the liberal Brookings Institution. Whitehurst is a development psychologist who spent his career "designing and evaluating programs intended to enhance the cognitive development of young children."

The rhetoric supporting the Start Strong legislation, Whitehurst writes, is "entirely predictable and thoroughly misleading. … If you're an advocate of strengthening early childhood programs, as I am, you also need to pay careful attention to the evidence — all of it." And the evidence, he says, "raises doubts on Obama's preschool for all."

Just as the baby-Mozart crowd extrapolated wildly from one small and unrelated study, Whitehurst says supporters of universal pre-K "highlight positive long-term outcomes of two boutique programs from 40-50 years ago that served a couple of hundred children" — the Perry and Abecedarian pre-school projects. Those projects focused intensely on underprivileged children: Perry's two-year intervention spent $19,000 per student.

Meanwhile, boosters ignore evidence that pre-K isn't all it's cracked up to be. That evidence, Whitehurst notes, includes "a newly released study of Tennessee's Voluntary Pre-K Program (TN-VPK). TN-VPK is a full day pre-K program for four-year-olds from low-income families."

The study found that "seven of the outcomes are negative. … In other words, the group that experienced the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group."

"I see these finding as devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-K programs," Whitehurst concludes. "I wish this weren't so, but facts are stubborn things."

Granted, other studies suggest early childhood programs can help prepare children for kindergarten.

One study of the Abbot pre-school initiative in New Jersey also showed modest results into fifth grade. But the claim being advanced by Obama, Kaine and others is far more sweeping: that pre-K's benefits last long into the future — so long, in fact, that they raise graduation rates, decrease teenage pregnancy and reduce crime.

It's possible. It's also possible that piping Mozart into the womb makes your baby smarter. But shouldn't government policy — and taxpayer funding — rest on a firmer foundation than that?

This column originally appeared in the Richmond-Times Dispatch.