Should we invest in preschool or parents?

What helps disadvantaged children more:  High-quality preschool or parenting classes for Mom and Dad?  With $10 million from a hedge-fund billionaire, University of Chicago economists John List and Steven Levitt and Harvard’s Roland Fryer are tracking outcomes for more than 600 children in Chicago Heights, a low-income suburb.

Local families with kids 3 to 5 years old were encouraged to enter a lottery and were randomly sorted into three groups.

Students selected to attend the Griffin school are enrolled in the free, all-day preschool. Children in another group aren’t enrolled in the school, while their guardians take courses at a “parenting academy” and receive cash or scholarships valued at up to $7,000 annually as a reward.

The more than 300 kids in the third contingent receive no benefits — nor do their parents — and serve as a control group.

The children’s test scores, attendance records and graduation rates will be monitored. Later, researchers will track their employment, pay and criminal records, if any.

While early results from the experiment may be published as soon as this year, the project has money to follow the students “until they die,” List says.

The Griffin experiment may show that the U.S. doesn’t spend enough on helping parents, List says. “We have too many eggs in the kid basket,” says List, himself a father of five. “We need to spend much more time and many more resources on helping parents.”

We know more about how to set up preschools than we know about how to help parents do a better job.

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  1. Isn’t this a bit unethical? I mean, suppose the researchers discover fairly quickly that it does make a difference. Are they going to “pull the kids out of the control group” and “treat them” like they would in a medical experiment?

    There is a difference between measuring groups of people who are already in a situation, and creating a distinction between groups for the purposes of measuring it.

  2. Andrew Schwab says:

    It seems to me that if we taught parenting and health in schools as part of the regular curriculum, we wouldn’t have as many “parenting” issues. But of course the only subjects we value in school are Math and English. We’re not educating well rounded citizens. It’s a cycle. Would love to see someone fund long term research based on changing what we teach, rather than just who goes where or gets incentivized.

  3. Genevieve says:

    I’m curious how they keep the students from attending preschool. Wouldn’t most of these children be eligible for Head Start?
    I have a feeling that some of the children in the non-preschool groups will end up in another preschool program. Then the comparison will be between one type of preschool and another.

  4. Isn’t it more unethical to not pursue knowledge that can help all students, instead of quickly jumping on initial results and destroying an experiment?

    Suppose that one approach shows short term gains, but no long term change. The second approach shows no initial gains, but over the long term has substantial benefits. Unless research is carried to conclusion, we would never know that the second approach is vastly superior.

    This is also much better than most education research, which consists of giving everyone the treatment and declaring it a sucess no matter what.

  5. I have to admit I am confused about the parenting classes…..what do they teach? Are they shown to help in anyway? What is the purpose of the cash incentive…do the parents put on a show of engaging in certain behaviors to get the money?

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    What I’m confused about is how the researcher, List, has already reached a conclusion while the experiment is incomplete. Don’t they need to analyze the date prior to reaching a conclusion? I understand they may hypothesize the results but to conclude?

  7. I don’t know if it is the reporters fault or the researchers, but the part I don’t get is: “more than 600” is the total being studied, I take that to mean less than 700, “more than 300” are in the control, and 150 are in the pre-school program. I assume somewhere between 150 and 250 are in the parenting program. It seems to me that you would like equal numbers in each group. Is there a reason he would have a control group that is so much larger than his test groups?

  8. I’d like to see some effort made to convince young, poorly educated, unskilled, unmarried kids (both sexes) NOT to father/bear kids. After 40 years and many generations of government support, we KNOW the kids suffer.

  9. I’ve reread the article and now realize that the control group is not really controlled. It is just a comparison group. The “control” group is what is likely to have happened to these other kids if we had not given them our “quality” all-day preschool, or given their parents parenting help. The researchers don’t care if they get head-start or someother help if it is something they would get anyway.

  10. Wouldn’t having free all-day child care mean that most of those moms would return to full-time employment? That would introduce a whole set of confounding variables like a higher familial income.

  11. According to a family member who has a social worker friend, the demographic in question is very adept in working the (government programs) system. In her jurisdiction, the moms make sure they are pregnant again by the time the next kid turns two, because new-mom benefits last two years.

  12. Cranberry says:

    I presume the researchers feel they’re more likely to lose track of members of the comparison group over time.

  13. wahoofive says:

    I’m with Kate. There’s a huge difference between saying parenting quality makes a difference, and concluding that the problem is lack of parenting skills (as opposed to lack of motivation), and a further leap to thinking we know what those lacks are and that they can be taught.

    It’s not unreasonable to think that a lot of the poor parenting is a result of parents who care about something else rather than being good parents (e.g. their love life, booze, gambling, etc.). Can’t fix that with parenting classes. In other cases the parents can’t really read or do math themselves, and that’s not something you can fix with a few classes.

  14. Cardinal Fang says:

    This is brilliant. The great thing is, suppose the pre-school turns out to be better, or the parenting classes turn out to be better. It doesn’t matter why! We would then know a valuable intervention technique.

    Or suppose that neither intervention did anything much. Then, again, we’d have the valuable information that all-day preschool, or intensive parenting classes, did nothing much and we could avoid wasting our money on ineffective interventions.

    Kate– the point about parenting classes is exactly to find out if they are effective. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. Presumably, the experimenters are providing whatever parenting classes are most highly regarded by people who advocate parenting classes for parents of disadvantaged children. At the end of the experiment, we’ll know better whether that kind of parenting class produces measurable results.

    I hope the experimenters follow the families for over a decade. Lately, some studies have been showing that children who were in Head Start as little ones have better outcomes as young adults.

  15. “Students selected to attend the Griffin school are enrolled in the free, all-day preschool. ”

    They’re confusing ‘free’ with ‘paid for by someone else’.

    When will they ever learn.

    ‘Wouldn’t having free all-day child care mean that most of those moms would return to full-time employment? ‘

    That’s hilarious.

  16. SuperSub says:

    I’d say we should invest in state-funded boarding schools for promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

  17. Rebecca Trotter says:

    I am SO glad to see this. I have long said that human (ie child) development should be taught in high school and that anyone who recieves government benefits should be required to take parenting classes. A huge amount of child abuse can be directly tied to parents who don’t know anything about normal child development. When I have dealt with low income parents, I heard things like “My mom keeps telling that I need to spank my 2 year old daughter for wetting the bed now that she’s potty trained, but I’m not sure.” I knew a mother once who would insist that her 3 month old baby stop crying before feeding her. I could go on and on. The truth is that there are a lot of parents out there who do not have any idea what good parenting looks like. The few parent education programs that have been tried have shown real signs of success. This is an idea that is long overdue.

  18. If you have no punishment or opprobrium for behaving badly, subsidies for behaving better are one of the few arrows left in the quiver.

    Of course, this means more money and power for the bureaucrats who control the subsidies.

  19. bandit- most SAHM’s return to full-time employment once their child enters 1st grade, so why wouldn’t having free full-time preschool push that date up?

  20. Cardinal Fang says:

    The mothers might, or might not, get fulltime jobs if their young children were in fulltime preschool. But that is a result of the fulltime preschool, not a confounding variable.

    That is, we want to know what happens to disadvantaged kids if we put them in a good fulltime preschool. Suppose that the kids turn out to have great outcomes. We *don’t care* whether they have great outcomes because their mothers started working and were able to buy them better food, or their mothers were able to sleep more and therefore stopped snapping at their kids in the evenings, or for some other reason. We put the kids in the preschool, and they benefitted, and that’s what we wanted to learn.