Early education advocates want you to believe that the case for universal preschool is so airtight that raising any questions about it is an act of heresy. But there is a strong and growing body of literature showing that preschool produces virtually no lasting benefits for the majority of kids.
Proponents of universal preschool claim that when kids attend quality preschools, they grow up to be smarter, richer and more law-abiding. But this is a fairy tale not based on research.
More kids who attend preschool enter kindergarten knowing their ABCs and counting their numbers than their stay-at-home peers, it is true. But these gains fade, as study after study has shown.
Consider Oklahoma and Georgia, two states that have spent billions implementing universal preschool. Georgia's fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading score in 1992, when it embraced universal preschool, was 212 - three points below the national average. Last year, after years of universal preschool, it was 219 - still one point below the national average. Its math score was three points below the average in 1992. Last year, it was 235 - four points below the national average.
And that's the good news.
Oklahoma's fourth-grade NAEP reading score in 1998, when it adopted universal preschool, was 219 - six points above the national average. Last year, it had dropped to 217 - three points below the national average. Similarly, its math score was at par with the national average in 2000. Last year, it had dropped two points below. Since employing universal preschool, not only is Oklahoma doing worse compared with the nation - but also its own prior performance.
The latest bit of bad news for universal preschool comes from Tennessee, which poured $250 million into expanding a state preschool program three years ago. A comprehensive study last month - commissioned by the government itself - concluded that, barring at-risk kids, there was "no statistically significant difference" between the educational performance of second-graders who attended preschool and those who did not. Activists cannot blame this on 'poor quality' preschool, given that the Tennessee program is regarded as the gold standard of preschool - meeting 9 of the 10 criteria for a high-quality program set by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Meanwhile, research on Head Start, the federal preschool program for poor kids, also shows few gains. Studies show minor initial cognitive gains - but a near-complete fade out after kids begin elementary school. "By the second or third grade, there is no difference between the test scores of children who attended most preschool programs, including Head Start, and those who did not," Ron Haskins of the liberal Brookings Institution concluded.
Universal preschool activists brush away these uncomfortable findings and tout the results of boutique programs such as Michigan's 1962 Perry Preschool Program. The positive effect on high-school graduation rates, adult crime, earnings and welfare-dependence of Perry participants has given this program mythical status. But Perry had a grand total of 58 low-IQ kids in its treatment sample, all from extremely disadvantaged, minority backgrounds. Its results have little bearing for other kids.
In fact, University of Chicago Nobel Prize-winner James Heckman, who has extensively studied Perry, has cautioned against generalizing its findings to promote universal preschool. In a June 2005 interview with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, when asked whether public funding should go for universal programs or at-risk kids, Heckman responded: "It is foolish to try to substitute for what the middle-class and upper-middle-class parents are already doing."
Likewise, in the latest issue of Education Next, Craig Ramey, director of the Center on Health and Education at Georgetown University, a universal preschool supporter, chastises activists for using Perry to create "unrealistic expectations" about the benefits of pre-kindergarten schooling for regular kids.
What's more, a joint analysis that Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor, conducted with Stanford University researchers found extended preschool may actually emotionally harm mainstream kids. He found that kindergartners with 15 or more hours of preschool every week were less motivated and more aggressive in class. Likewise, Canada's C.D. Howe Institute found a higher incidence of anxiety, hyperactivity and poor social skills among kids in Quebec after universal preschool.
All of this suggests that we are very far from having the degree of confidence needed to justify billions of dollars in taxpayer spending on universal preschool. Preschool advocates might want to will away such inconvenient facts. But politicians ought to look beyond the cherry-picked data advocates cite before foisting preschool on all American toddlers.