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Corporate Program for Disadvantaged Children Under Fire

An experimental preschool program for low-income students, funded by Goldman Sachs, is drawing criticism. The program is geared toward helping underprivileged students in Utah, but it makes money for investors based on the number of “at-risk” students who avoid special education in kindergarten.

While some are calling the program a success, reporter Nathaniel Popper’s article, “Success Metrics Questioned in School Program Funded by Goldman,” uncovered questions regarding whether the program actually achieved the success that was claimed.

Nine early-education experts who reviewed the program for The New York Times quickly identified a number of irregularities in how the program’s success was measured, which seem to have led Goldman and the state to significantly overstate the effect that the investment had achieved in helping young children avoid special education.

Goldman said its investment had helped almost 99 percent of the Utah children it was tracking avoid special education in kindergarten. The bank received a payment for each of those children.

The big problem, researchers say, is that even well-funded preschool programs — and the Utah program was not well funded — have been found to reduce the number of students needing special education by, at most, 50 percent. Most programs yield a reduction of closer to 10 or 20 percent.

The program’s unusual success — and the payments to Goldman that were in direct proportion to that success — were based on what researchers say was a faulty assumption that many of the children in the program would have needed special education without the preschool, despite there being little evidence or previous research to indicate that this was the case.

“We’re all happy if Goldman Sachs makes money as long as they are making it with smart investments that make a real difference,” said Clive Belfield, an economics professor at Queens College in New York, who studies early childhood education. “Here they seem to have either performed a miracle, or these kids weren’t in line for special education in the first place.”

Despite questionable, and what many are calling faulty, data, education reformers want to capitalize on the Utah experiment and create more private-public partnerships with Wall Street financing.

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