Neal Milner: We Need To Stay Honest About The Benefits Of Early Childhood Education - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Ready Keiki must be flexible, experimental and welcome evidence-based criticism.

“Universal access to early education is a social justice issue for Hawaii.”

That’s how the Ready Keiki Initiative describes the state’s new plan to provide early education for all 3- and 4-year olds. 

Calling it a “social justice issue” can stir the juices. It’s a mobilizer. But it can also be a poison pill.

Social justice issues, including every big-time attempt at education reform, are filled with unanticipated paths and blind alleys. 

The more important an issue is, the more likely the approach you take with passion may turn out to be disappointing or even wrong — where results are a lot different than advocates expected.

Surprises, sometimes pleasant but other times deflating.

It is what happens next that has poison pill potential. Advocates just know in their hearts (as opposed to their heads) that the program is top notch. They make sweeping statements. Their reputation and even their ability to hold on to their political career may depend on it.  

Consequently, they dismiss or pay no attention to evidence that is contrary to their beliefs. That’s why program assessments end up on some dusty, paper-eating-insect-infested top shelf never to be seen again. 

And bad programs then take on a flawed life of their own.

The Ready Keiki Initiative’s website is essentially a sales pitch. Well, of course it is because its goal is to build up passion and commitment.

Understandable but also poison pill potential because the sales pitch skates over the nuts-and-bolts question: Does early education really work? 

A recent national study of early education programs by the Brookings Institution found that the majority of parents are supportive of investments in education, “even if long-term effects were quite modest.” (Suevon Lee/Civil Beat)

Here is the answer to that question that the Brookings Institution’s recent national study of early education programs gives: “Given the importance of education in a modern economy and the fact that the majority of parents are supportive of investments in education, extending educational opportunities to three- and four-year-olds might be a good idea, even if the long-term effects were quite modest.”

“Might be a good idea” and “modest” are hardly sales pitch words. More like the way your surgeon talks to you about the progress of the Achilles tendon you ruptured playing pickle ball. 

Pouring cold water, sure, but also an explicit statement supporting early ed. Think of the Brookings findings — I am especially talking to you, Ready Keiki Initiative developers — as sympathetic but with strong words of caution. 

Follow your dream but don’t let your dream get in the way of the evidence.

With that in mind, here are some pointers to prevent this social justice issue from becoming a poison pill.

First, use the Brookings study as a cautionary tale and pay careful attention to its findings from the get-go.

Second, accept the fact that although the quality of an early education program makes a difference, there is surprisingly little knowledge about the small, subtle pedagogical approaches that produce good quality programs.  

Adding to this complication is the fact that the new generation of 3- and 4-year olds is very different.

Third, there is some reason to be hopeful that early education has long-term effects, but based on what we know now, those effects seem to be limited.

Achievement is falling more behind. The racial gap in scores is widening.  

Fourth, and maybe the most important, the impact of early education programs is limited because it is affected so much by powerful outside forces that schooling can barely change. The primary ones are inequality, which begins at birth and profoundly affects children even before they are preschool age. 

Students who do best in preschool arrive at what educators call “school ready.” Children from low-income families are less likely to be school ready. Being in an early childhood ed program helps students catch up but only modestly.

Other hard-for-schools-to-overcome factors affecting early school success are strong family relationships, parents’ mental health and access to resources.

Some of this can be overcome as the Brookings study shows. The effects, though, are modest because the outside forces limiting them are so great.

Cue to lots of knowing, mirthless laughter by any teacher reading this because teachers at any level from pre-K through high school face these problems every day. Teaching is hard in a million ways, but one of the hardest is that we expect them to overcome in the classroom those forces that happen outside.

Fifth is the post-Covid lockdown school crisis. Nationally there is, as one educational journal recently put it, a “striking collapse” in student math and verbal competence.  

Achievement is falling more behind. The racial gap in scores is widening.  

It’s not clear yet whether all the resources that have gone into stemming this are having an effect.

This could put more pressure on early education to overcome the effects of this crisis and create more competition with other school programs for money to do so.

The crisis may also increase the temptation to exaggerate the effectiveness of programs like Ready Keiki and to avoid critical assessments. “We know it is working because it has to work.”

Ready Keiki must be flexible, experimental, and evidence-based, and evidence-based criticism must be rewarded. (Screenshot:

Sixth, all this means that Ready Keiki must be flexible, experimental and evidence-based – ready to modify a practice or program when assessments indicate that they are not working.  

This is not just a statistical issue. It’s an organizational one. Criticism, especially if it’s evidence-based, must be rewarded not condemned.

Seventh, despite all this, Ready Keiki is worth a shot for very important reasons that Brookings mentions. One is that pre-K frees parents or guardians from the burden of paying for child care. It also gives the at-home child care provider the opportunity to get a job or go back to school.  

Early education strengthens the family.

Another reason is that, as Brooking shows, early ed does have a positive effect. You may be disappointed with the results so far. When it comes to social policy, though, the perfect can be the enemy of the good, particularly regarding early childhood education where it’s not even close to clear what a perfect program would look like.

And eighth, some words of encouragement. Not long ago, the Rand Corp. looked at which gun control laws worked, and which didn’t. Based on scientific standards of evidence, almost nothing worked. 

We feel your pain, the study’s director said to politicians and policymakers, but remember how different your job is different from ours. You can’t always wait for results based on nifty, sophisticated data and scientific standards before you try stuff. It’s your job to try stuff and see what happens.

That is how it should work with Ready Keiki. The impact of early education programs may not be as dramatic as we hoped. We are far from knowing the best ways to do pre-K programs. 

More reason to try stuff, and most of all, to constantly assess so that things can be modified if that stuff is not working.

A bearer of bad news is an ally not a subversive.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Nice. Let's take a deep dive into the pennies spent of early childhood education/care is see if the taxpayers are getting their proper ROI for the money. Think any ROI should start with the bloated military budget sucking all the air out of the room. I'll bet any investigation would merit thousands if not millions on the dollar. And how about the gazillionaires with their polical hacks getting away with it. Every. Single. Day. Let's look at where the big taxpayer bucks are. Not where they are not.

oldsurfa · 3 months ago

Yes, as a society, we need to stay honest about education, especially early childhood education. At present, education implicitly means compulsory education, and compulsory education concerns the role of the state (meaning an entity, a "mystical body" created by government) in regulating family law or domestic affairs. Early childhood education expands the role of the state in family law and at the same time redirects our attention away from the responsibility of biological parents to the responsibility of the state. So thinking honestly about early childhood education should be discussed before the conscious decision to become a biological parent. "If our liberated sex results in conception, who among us will raise the child until school age (at 5 years old)? One of us, or the state (at 4 years old)? " Thinking honestly, why does our society allow both parents to work? Why does our society rely on "government schools", rather than community schools to educate our children? Before we cement pre-school into our sociological perspective, and therefore enlarge the structure of public education, let us think about the benefits of pre-school beyond extra income.

SwingMan · 3 months ago

The very best early childhood education a working-class child can have is at home with a grandma, grandpa, or another close relative. I should know - I was one, and certainly hope to have the opportunity one day to help my kids raise my grand-kids while they focus on their careers.For families who have no kupuna in town and cannot afford to have a stay-at-home parent - yes, preschool availability is critically important. The right way to help them pay for preschool is by creating a new non-refundable preschool tax credit that mirrors and supplements the existing child and dependent care tax credit. The new credit should have a fixed component (one may think of it as a "preschool voucher") and a component proportional to the excess of actual preschool costs over the fixed component. This mechanism would ensure competition among preschool providers (private and public) and prevent any preschool subsidies from going to families who have a non-working parent or choose a mode of childcare other than preschool.

Chiquita · 3 months ago

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