Cui bono and how much?

Universal preschool is not a silver bullet, writes Lance Izumi of the Pacific Research Institute, taking on Rob Reiner, who’s pushing a California initiative to fund preschool for all four-year-olds. Reiner cites a RAND report that concludes preschool provides money-saving social benefits in the long run. But sample size was small in one study; in a larger study, children weren’t randomly assigned to preschool or the control group.

RAND also cites the federal Head Start program, a long-running government preschool program for disadvantaged children. RAND admits that the program has had mixed results. In fact, a Health and Human Services department study found that any gains made by Head Start children diminished or disappeared once children entered regular school.

There’s no evidence that preschool helps middle-class children.

Further, the evidence from Georgia, one of only two states with a statewide preschool, is not encouraging. In 2003, Georgia State University researchers found that after tracking students for five years, any test score gains from preschool “are not sustained in later years.”

RAND suggests political support would be stronger for government-funded preschool if it was available to everyone, not just disadvantaged kids.

On Eduwonk, Sara Mead warns against mandatory preschool paranoia, in response to a Washington Times column on preschool’s perils. Only nine states mandate kindergarten attendance, Mead points out. There is no mandatory preschool movement — except in Malaysia.

My fear is that the poor kids who could benefit from a high-quality preschool will get the watered-down budget version so middle-class parents whose children don’t need preschool can cut their child-care bills.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. …any test score gains from preschool “are not sustained in later years.

    I wouldn’t expect otherwise. Most schools progress at a fixed pace. Kids who enter school knowing more than expected will simply wait while the same knowlege is fed to the rest of the kids. And those starting out only slightly behind should have a fair chance of catching up.

    The only place I can imagine Head Start making a long-term difference is with kids who are too far behind to ever catch up on their own. I don’t know whether the RAND study tried to follow this sub-group. There would have to be some sort of initial testing to identify these kids, other than through household income.

    It’s hard to imagine what it would take to produce a child who can’t function in kindergarten (without some sort of disability). Both parents on crack, and no siblings to learn from?

    My fear is that the poor kids who could benefit from a high-quality preschool will get the watered-down budget version so middle-class parents whose children don’t need preschool can cut their child-care bills.

    It would certainly distort the emphasis of the program. But so would including poor children who are otherwise on-track.

  2. Cousin Dave says:

    Bart has a great point. Here’s another, I think: My concern is that a universal pre-school program will wind up sucking in a lot of children who simply are not ready. I’ve long been suspicious of programs that try to put children into formal education prior to age 4. I think there’s only two things that can happen to such a program. One, it becomes glorified day care, as Joanne says. The other is they try to actually make it work, but then they wind up labeling a lot of perfectly normal kids as developmental/behavioral problems simply because they are a year too early to be placed in that kind of setting. Is there something I’m missing here?

  3. “Is there something I’m missing here?” How it’s a full-employment program for certified (pre-school) teachers, and especially anyone with certificates in handling “developmental/behavioral problems”. And I’ll bet these well-paid preschool specialists won’t deal with the most commonly encountered problems with kids that age – that is, they’ll just call the parents for stinky pants.