Universal preschool hasn’t helped Oklahoma and Georgia children do better in school, write Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation in the Wall Street Journal. A Tennessee study showed gains vanish by second grade. Head Start grads also lose their edge quickly.
Why don’t preschool gains stick? Possibly because the K-12 system is too dysfunctional to maintain them. More likely, because early education in general is not so crucial to the long-term intellectual growth of children. Finland offers strong evidence for this view. Its kids consistently outperform their global peers in reading, math and science on international assessments even though they don’t begin formal education until they are 7. Subsidized preschool is available for parents who opt for it, but only when their kids turn 6.
Intensive, expensive preschool programs help the children of poor, uneducated single mothers, they write. Even then, the benefits aren’t as dramatic as proponents claim. James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist quoted by preschool proponents, “calculated that the Michigan program produced a 16-cent return on every dollar spent — not even remotely close to the $10 return that Mr. Obama and his fellow advocates bandy about.”
I don’t think preschool harms kids, despite some evidence of behavior issues for those who attend more than 15 hours a week. Most children enjoy the experience. But “universal” inevitably means funding preschools that are adequate for kids who don’t need a boost and not good enough to make a difference for disadvantaged children.