Pre-K vs. poverty

In the greatest expansion of public education since kindergarten became the norm after World War I, state leaders are pushing tax-funded pre-kindergarten as a way to narrow the learning gap between middle-class and low-income children, reports the Wall Street Journal.

A new analysis of the famed Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan claims that program for very poor black children — which was far more intensive than the average preschool — saved $16 for every $1 invested by preventing school failure, welfare and crime. (The old estimate was $6.60, as I recall.) Ypsilanti was the justification for Head Start, which has minimal long-term effect on disadvantaged children.

“The current full-scale Head Start program is having a disappointing impact on kids,” says Douglas Besharov of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Pre-K is an important part of the tool chest for reducing the achievement gap…but will the return on investment be as great as people say? I don’t think so.”

Some pre-K advocates want to enroll all four-year-olds, while others want to provide high-quality pre-K for low-income children.

To the extent Head Start has fallen short of its goals, they argue, it is because federal and state funding is inadequate and the staff is sometimes poorly trained.

On This Week in Education, Alexander Russo wonders why, if universal pre-K is “such a great and transformative idea . . . how come Head Start hasn’t done the trick and is being bypassed?” Good question.

Russo also notes the Journal’s reporting on the role of the Pew Charitable Trust, which has bankrolled research and advocacy for universal pre-K. The Hechinger Institute at Columbia Teachers College is a Pew grantee, notes Richard Colvin of Early Stories.

I’d like to see very good — and therefore expensive — preschool and pre-K for very poor children, who aren’t learning social or academic skills at home. Let’s do that right first.

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Comments

  1. The set of people who would be good pre-k teachers is not infinite. Once the number of kids going to pre-k exceeds a certain number, the average quality of the teachers is going to decline and, with it, the value of the experience.

    It would probably be optimum, therefore, to limit the size of any such program to the kids that really need it, rather than diluting the teacher quality pool by expanding the program unduly.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Our state just had a push for taxpayer funded all day Kindergarten. Now they’re starting on pre-school.

    Open to everyone, of course.

    Personally, I think it’s just a way of subsidizing daycare…

    After all, how many 3-6 year olds are going to be able to be academically productive for 6 hours straight.

    And why should education money be going to fund snacks and naps for young children? I have pre-schoolers…. there is NO WAY that 6 hours of instruction could POSSIBLY be three times as good as two hours….

    There’s a law of diminishing returns in play, and with young children the returns diminish VERY quickly…..

  3. I thought the verdict on Head Start was that the kids enrolled made great progress and were well ahead of others from similar circumstances through kindergarten and first grade, but then gradually dropped back to the (appallingly bad) average by the time they finished grade school. In other words, it’s a failure by the schools. Either they couldn’t maintain whatever it is that Head Start did right, or they simply don’t challenge anyone but the slowest kids in the class, and so those that started out ahead have to drop back…

  4. Many of the kids I taught spent their early years watching videos and T.V. It was not at all unusual to discover that the parents never read to the kids. Frequently, the parents were illiterate. Reading materials were not present in the homes in any language. The homes had plenty of entertainment toys (iPods, large screen T.V. sets, stereos, etc.). They did not have many toys for the children.

    Looking at the cumulative files for the kids, I would find comments saying that a child needed to practice the alphabet, counting to 100, or identifying colors.

    These were reports for first grade kids.

    Many parents have no idea how to interact with their young kids to help the kid learn simple things like colors. It is really fairly pathetic, and it crosses all ethnic groups.

    To generalize, the pattern seems to appear where there is poverty and ignorance. It also seems to be fairly common among teenage parents who are not prepared to help a young mind develop.

    I don’t think people who are outside of systems that work with large groups of kids have an opportunity to see just how common the pattern of poor parenting has become. It is hard to believe how many kids have parents and caregivers who are clueless.

    Family daycare in these households usually consists of either another child or an elderly adult who “watches” the child to keep him or her out of trouble. Sadly, that often means that the kid is in a playpen with one or two stuffed animals while the caregiver watches T.V. When the child outgrows the playpen, the kid is often plunked down with a video. The young child learns next to nothing in that environment.

    It is very scary to think of how many households like this exist.

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    That IS scary… especially since it;s not even DIFFICULT to teach a child colors (provided that neither the parent nor the child is color-blind and that the child has reached the age when learning colors is pretty easy…)

    Heck, all you have to do is give the kid choices (holding up two shirts: Do you want the PINK shirt or the GREEN shirt?)

    Though my three-year-old and I do have a regular dialogue on “Why Daddy never learned to tell Fuschia from Purple or light pink from Lavender….”

    And as far as alphabet goes… I really have NO idea how my older daughter learned hers… it just popped out of her… as did letter recognition and the beginnings of writing….

    But on the other hand, we live in a house that is sagging under the weight of books, toys and art supplies….

    Though, I must ask… how can “the poor” afford ipods, big screen tvs, and all the other “adult toys” you mentioned? We’re middle class, and we make due with an ancient TV handed down from an uncle, a 15-year-old CD player, and the computer we bought for gradschool 5 years ago…..

    If they’re ACTUALLY to poor to buy books and toys and crayons ($.20 a box at walmart…..) and whatnot, how do they afford the other stuff?

    (More curious than doubting your assertion…. it just seems odd….)

  6. Nicksmama says:

    A dear friend of mine has four boys, about a year apart. She raised them on trash tv, video games, soda and m&m’s. She never read to them or sent them to preschool to learn their letters and numbers.

    All four are now excellent students who eat lots of fruit with their crown-covered, silver-filled teeth. 😉

  7. Personally, I think it’s just a way of subsidizing daycare No kidding!

    A new analysis of the famed Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan claims that program for very poor black children — which was far more intensive than the average preschool — saved $16 for every $1 invested by preventing school failure, welfare and crime.

    If I had every dollar ‘saved’ by gov’t programs I’d be able to fill up the Grand Canyon with $100 bills – yet remarkably the gov’t’s in debt. Go figure!

    Lead pipe cinch in about 15 years – new pre-preschool program to fix problems in preschool.

  8. linda seebach says:

    If you look up the data on the Perry Preschool you will find many things of interest.

    It was very small — around 60 children in each of the intervention and control groups.

    It was 40 years ago; families, neighborhoods, schools are all very different now, and likely the experiment could not be replicated (and apparently has not been, despite the long period).

    The High Scope/Perry Preschool program, which is still selling its materials based on these results, claims that the Perry results depend specifically on their materials used in their entirely, and should not be expected from other preschool experiences.

    But the biggest factor is that the children in the study were in the most deprived circumstances imaginable. Though there were some small gains in additional education and increased income (especially for the girls) the most significant factor in the large payoff claimed was that it reduced the percentage of of children who went on to have more than five lifetime arrests from something around 55 percent to 39 percent, a matter of 11 or 12 fewer adults in that category.

    If services are expanded to much larger groups of children, most of whom who are unlikely to have five lifetime arrests anyway, the payoff rapidly turns negative.

    Denver voters recently approved an increase in the sales tax to fund additional pre-school slots, sold to them by politicians who believed in the Perry Preschool fairy tale and had no clue they’d been duped by advocates.

  9. Thanks, Linda, for the background. Perry also included home visits to teach parenting skills. Some mothers were hired and trained as preschool aides. Their children showed the most benefit in later years.

  10. “Though, I must ask… how can “the poor” afford ipods, big screen tvs, and all the other “adult toys” you mentioned? We’re middle class, and we make due with an ancient TV handed down from an uncle, a 15-year-old CD player, and the computer we bought for gradschool 5 years ago…..”

    When you walk into one of these homes, you notice that the house itself is very poorly maintained. The furnishings are usually minimal. There are no decorations, pictures, or keepsakes. Things often look very dirty. Yet, there will often be a large screen T.V. and a DVD player in the living room.

    The family may have very little to eat. The rent may be late. The kids may sleep on a mattress on the floor, yet there will be an iPod or a less expensive MP3 player. There will usually be several cell phones. Usually, there will be new shoes.

    The entertainment toys are more important than food, rent, and decent furniture. The shoes are part of gang status.