Universal pre-K: 21st century boondoggle

Universal pre-K will be very costly and largely ineffective, argues Checker Finn in the Washington Post.

In a time of ballooning deficits, expansion of preschool programs would use large sums on behalf of families that don’t need this subsidy while not providing nearly enough help to the smaller number of children who need it most. It fails to overhaul expensive but woefully ineffectual efforts such as Head Start. And it dumps 5-year-olds, ready or not, into public-school classrooms that today are unable even to make and sustain their own achievement gains, much less to capitalize on any advances these youngsters bring from preschool. (Part of the energy behind universal pre-K is school systems — and teachers unions — maneuvering to expand their own mandates, revenue and membership rolls.)

Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia are offering preschool to all four-year-olds. So far, expanded preschool access hasn’t raised school performance in those states.

“Fewer than 20 percent of 5-year-olds are seriously unready for the cognitive challenges of kindergarten,” Finn estimates. Preschool designed for their needs is intensive and expensive — and unneeded by most kids. 

. . .  while a few tiny, costly programs targeting very poor children have shown some lasting positive effects, the overwhelming majority of studies show that most pre-K programs have little to no educational impact (particularly on middle-class kids) and/or have effects that fade within the first few years of school.

Making pre-K “universal” makes it impossible to replicate the programs that have shown long-term effects.

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  1. I’ve read “There are no Shortcuts”, which is the story of a teacher giving his students the chance to experience an intensive fifth grade year. Anyone know of any larger scale attempts to vary the intensity of education experience over time? I’m wondering if that might be more effective than just increasing the time children spend in school.

  2. Who’s he arguing with? More taxpayer funded daycare and union jobs – what the future holds.

  3. I work at Head Start. I am truly dismayed to see federal and state govt’s pouring money into 4 yo Kindergarten programs while they gut funding for Head Start programs. Much of what 4K amounts to is a day care subsidy for middle class families whose kids have the skills needed to be successful in Kindergarten.

    I take issue with the statement,…..”fails to overhaul expensive but woefully ineffectual efforts such as Head Start.” Head Start programs benefit low income children and their families in ways that “follow up assessments” will never reveal. It’s about empowering parents to be involved and supported in their children’s education, and teaching children the social behaviors that will help them succeed in school. Its mission is so much broader than learning your ABC’s and colors.

    Head Start programs are woefully underfunded because the people running this country don’t care about poor kids and their families. I haven’t had a raise in 4 years and we are cutting 94 slots next fall, yet we still hear about the need for 4K programs.

  4. There are studies that show the long term benefit of early childhood education is huge – more than 100% ROI. I’m not saying that the Head Start program specifically is the best option, but promoting early childhood education is an important goal for the competitiveness of the country.

    There’s more detail about the studies here: http://education-blog.kindercare.com/2009/05/our-most-important-investment-the-education-of-our-future-generation/