Wednesday, 23 Jun 2021

The Power of Pre-K

In the late 1990s, Boston expanded its public pre-K program, but it did not have nearly enough spots for every 4-year-old in the city. So it used a lottery to help determine which children could enroll.

That lottery created an opportunity for academic researchers. It meant that thousands of otherwise similar children would have different life experiences based on random chance. And random chance is a powerful way for social scientists to study cause and effect. It may be the closest thing to a laboratory experiment in the real world.

Pre-K was a particularly good subject to study, because there has been a long-running debate about how much it matters. In the 1960s and ’70s, studies of two small preschool programs — known as the Perry and Abecedarian programs — showed major benefits for the children who attended them. But some experts pointed out the two programs were of a higher quality than most pre-K programs. For that reason, a community that enacted universal pre-K could not expect to replicate the benefits of Perry and Abecedarian.

The evidence about larger pre-K programs — like the federal Head Start program — was more mixed. Graduates of Head Start seemed to do better on math and reading tests during the early years of elementary school. As they got older, though, the positive effects often faded, leaving the value of universal pre-K unclear.

This debate now has a new urgency. President Biden is calling for the federal government to subsidize state pre-K programs. About two-thirds of 4-year-olds and half of 3-year-olds now attend such programs. Biden wants to make them universally available, at an additional cost of about $20 billion a year (or less than 1/30th of what the federal government spends on Medicare). He would pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthy.

In today’s newsletter, I want to tell you about the results from the Boston pre-K study. They are being released this morning by three economists, from the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley.

Social and emotional skills

Let’s start with the negative results: The Boston students who won the lottery did not do noticeably better on standardized tests in elementary school, middle school or high school, according to the three researchers, Guthrie Gray-Lobe, Parag Pathak and Christopher Walters. These findings are consistent with the mixed evidence on Head Start.

But test scores are mostly a means, not an end. More important than the scores are concrete measures of a student’s well-being. And by those measures, the students who won the lottery fared substantially better than those who lost it.

The winners were less likely to be suspended in high school and less likely to be sentenced to juvenile incarceration. Nearly 70 percent of lottery winners graduated from high school, compared with 64 percent of lottery losers, which is a substantial difference for two otherwise similar groups. The winners were also more likely to take the S.A.T., to enroll in college and — though the evidence is incomplete, because of the students’ age — to graduate from college.

These positive effects were similar across racial groups and income groups. They also spanned both sexes, with larger effects for boys than girls. The authors note that their findings are consistent with several other studies, which also found that early education had a bigger effect on long-term outcomes than short-term metrics.

How could pre-K have these positive effects without lifting test scores? It seems to improve children’s social and emotional skills and help them mature more than it helps in a narrow academic sense, the researchers told me.

The findings are a reminder of how complex a process schooling is. We can’t simply give up on test scores. Measurement and accountability are vital parts of education, just as they are with most human endeavors. Without them, society ends up tolerating a lot of mediocrity and failure. But measurement often needs to be nuanced to be accurate.

“An important implication of our study,” Walters, a Berkeley economist, said, “is that modern large-scale public preschool programs can improve educational attainment.”

For more: How child care became a top issue in Biden’s Washington, by The Times’s Emily Peck; and why Republicans are abandoning their past support for universal child care, by Elliot Haspel, in The Washington Post.


The Virus

After a slow start to its vaccination campaign, the European Union is administering nearly three million doses a day.

Several states — including Wisconsin, Iowa and the Carolinas — have asked the federal government to send fewer doses as U.S. demand continues to fall.

Most schools have reopened, at least partly. But students continue to opt out of in-person classes — often for reasons beyond the virus.

Virus resources: Google is adapting its offices for life after the pandemic. Take a look.


Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, endorsed Elise Stefanik to replace Liz Cheney in the party’s leadership.

The White House is planning to require stronger digital security for federal agencies and contractors. This weekend, a cyberattack forced a major pipeline to shut down.

With narrow margins in the House and Senate, some Democrats worry that deaths or illnesses among their members could derail Biden’s agenda.

International News

Bombings this weekend in Afghanistan targeted girls. The scale of the killing and the innocence of the victims looked like signs of a country’s violent unraveling.

China is forcing Muslim women in Xinjiang region to have fewer children.

The U.S. and Iran want to restore the nuclear deal. They disagree on what that means.

Debris from a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean yesterday. NASA’s head accused China of “failing to meet responsible standards.”

Other Big Stories

A gunman killed six people at a birthday party in Colorado Springs. It was one of at least nine mass shootings this weekend, CNN reports.

Two medical studies found that the psychedelic drugs MDMA and psilocybin can help treat depression and post-traumatic stress.

Medina Spirit, the winner of last week’s Kentucky Derby, failed a drug test after the race. It was the fifth failed test in a year for Bob Baffert, the horse’s hall-of-fame trainer.

Dartmouth’s medical school accused 17 students of cheating on remote tests.


Quintin Jones, a death row inmate in Texas, isn’t innocent. But he doesn’t deserve to die, Suleika Jaouad argues in The Times.

Charles Blow writes that the Obamas have been freer to discuss race since leaving the White House.

Morning Reads

La Regina: Meet Italy’s next would-be queen.

The Media Equation: China has been creating an alternative to global news organizations.

A Times classic: Test your problem-solving skills.

Lives Lived: Pete du Pont had a law degree from Harvard and a bright future at his family’s chemical company. But politics beckoned, and he became a three-term congressman and the governor of Delaware. He died at 86.


The no-knead revolution

Bread baking changed in 2006. That’s when Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman published their fresh take on the form in The Times: a recipe that lets time do most of the work, no kneading necessary.

The technique led to an explosion in amateur baking and changed professional baking as well, the chef J. Kenji López-Alt writes. It changed his life, too. “Learning how time can do the work for you turned me from someone who baked perhaps one or two loaves a year into someone who throws together dough on a whim before bedtime several times a month,” he writes.

López-Alt’s basic instructions: Mix flour, water, salt and yeast in a bowl just until they all come together. Cover the bowl and let it sit on your counter overnight. The next day, shape it into a loose loaf, let it proof, then bake it in a preheated Dutch oven with the lid on. — Claire Moses, a Morning writer

For more: Here’s López-Alt’s updated recipe for no-knead bread.


What to Cook

Combine a main-course salad, like this Salade Lyonnaise, with your no-knead bread.

What to Watch

Two comedies on Peacock — “Girls5Eva” and “Rutherford Falls” — rely on reminiscing, but are also warnings about living in the past, the critic James Poniewozik writes.

Late Night

Elon Musk’s turn on “S.N.L.” was a bit self-deprecating and a bit self-aggrandizing.

Now Time to Play

The pangram from Friday’s Spelling Bee was vitriolic. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Fleeting trend (three letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. President Woodrow Wilson set Mother’s Day as the second Sunday in May, urging Americans to display the flag “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country,” The Times reported in 1914.

You can see today’s print front page here.

Today’s episode of “The Daily” is about vaccine hesitancy. On the Book Review podcast, Michael Lewis discusses “The Premonition.”

Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick and Tom Wright-Piersanti contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at

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