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June 02, 2009

The Dangers of Snake Oil

Snake-oil How do you know when you are being sold shoddy merchandise? How do you know when what someone is saying doesn't add up? A lot of times it might not be so easy to point out the gaps in logic or the tinny sound of a bald-faced lie when it is being told by an experienced Snake Oil Salesman. This is why experts came about, to help the rest of us separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to big ideas like public policy. But, I choose to have a personal relationship with policy and research, and just because I may not be an expert, that doesn't mean my opinions aren't valid.

Here is why.

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell said that it doesn't necessarily take a lot of research to decide if something, like a work of art, is authentic or fake. Many times it is just a feeling, a gut reaction. This is the feeling I get when I read most of Chester Finn's work. His blog is one in a long list of blogs that I subscribe to, just so I can keep tabs on what opponents of preschool and teacher empowerment are selling. I also read research and opinions outside of my personal beliefs so that I can challenge my thinking. I never want to be so comfortable in my beliefs that I am afraid to put them to the test.

When I read Chester Finn's recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post I got that sinking feeling.  I guess it's good, for a start, that a Conservative writer like Chester has at least recognized that pre-k is beneficial, and that we should start with the kids who need it most.  However, Chester loses his credibility by criticizing the need for pre-k for all and promoting arguments with huge holes in them.  His strategy, to cheaply denounce something that helps so many kids (and could help more) and that is backed by years and years of research will break down under closer scrutiny.  It was what Chester described as the Four Myths of Preschool that made me queasy. As I read them, I felt my finely tuned snake oil "detector" go off. It went off so loudly that I decided I needed to address each of the points that made my tummy hurt. So, for your debunking pleasure, over the next couple days, I will demystify Finn's "Four Myths" of pre-k policy.

-- Everybody needs it. In fact, about 85 percent of 4-year-olds already take part in preschool or child care outside their homes, paid for with a mix of public and private dollars. And fewer than 20 percent of 5-year-olds are seriously unready for the cognitive challenges of kindergarten in the No Child Left Behind era.

Not everyone in favor of voluntary pre-k for all says or believes that "Everybody needs it." Actually, that is the one thing that both sides agree on.  However, pro-pre-k advocates believe it should be a legitimate choice for every family. When high-quality pre-k programs are not accessible to all children, only people who can afford private pre-k or those living in poverty have a choice to attend a high quality pre-k program.  As a result, far too many children in the middle enter kindergarten unprepared or behind the kids who had the opportunity to attend pre-k.  Just take a look at Pre-K Now's report, "The Pre-K Pinch."  The way Chester and others jump start this "fear factor" ignores the sound reasoning behind pre-k for all.  It's clear that this manipulation is a tool to help readers buy into the skewed logic of most of their arguments. That is why it is always the lead-off statement in anti-pre-k propaganda. "The boogie man government wants to take your kids."

Not true. Both sides know that this accusation is meant to play on your emotions not your intellect.

As for the 85 percent of four-year-olds already in preschool or child care, he must have been hoping we wouldn't check out his numbers. Or maybe he was hoping the consumers of his opinion couldn't add.  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2005, 57.2% of all preschool age children attended a center-based preschool, 11.6% of children attended non-relative care. That adds up to 68.8 percent. However, even these numbers are inflated.  To begin, not all of these programs are high-quality education programs.  That's a problem.  More important, the statistic on school readiness is based on a parent survey that used land lines. This means that the data is skewed because people who use only mobile phones or have no phone, like poor people, are not part of the survey. There was a bias study done of this data that found that the NHES study 

...might underestimate some indicators such as the percentage of preschoolers who watch two or more hours of TV in a typical weekday and overestimate some indicators such as the percentage of preschoolers with mothers who are not in the labor force.

The survey is also of parents, not teachers or schools. The dangerous thing about snake oil is not that it doesn't work, it's that we think it does. It's the same with manipulative use of research to support political arguments. It's not that the arguments are based on shoddy statistics, it's that we might make decisions based on the reliability of a snake oil salesman in an expert's clothes.

In my next post, Fact or Myth: Preschool is educationally effective.

Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snake_oil

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