Pre-K won’t close achievement gap

Universal pre-K won’t solve the vocabulary gap (or inequality), writes Kay Hymowitz in Time. There’s no substitute for stable, nurturing families.

Two-year-olds from high-income families know many more words than two-year-olds from low-income families, according to a new study that confirms earlier research. Language Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K, reported the New York Times on the front page.

The idea that pre-K can compensate for family break down is “the preschool fairy tale,” writes Hymowitz.

It’s true that good preschools raise the math and reading scores of disadvantaged kids. The problem is that the gains are almost always temporary.  Study after study of every kind of program since Head Start first came on line in the 1960’s to recent state wide programs in Georgia and Oklahoma has concluded that, with the lonely exception of third grade boys’ math scores in Tulsa, cognitive gains “fade out” by third grade, probably because subpar schools and an unsupportive environment at home were unable to help pre-K kids take advantage of those gain.

Researchers now argue that preschool has the potential to create lasting benefits in students’ “soft skills” such as  attentiveness and self-control.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, one of early childhood education’s most prominent advocates, has argued that because soft skills are vital to labor market and life success, under some conditions preschools have actually been able to reduce welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, and crime rates, while also improving educational outcomes and earnings. At least one study has estimated that the resulting higher tax revenues, lower imprisonment and welfare costs have created a return of nearly 13 dollars for every preschool dollar spent.

. . . Heckman’s findings are based on several small, model programs from the 1960’s. The most famous and influential of them, the Perry Preschool in Ypsalanti, Michigan, involved only 58 children.  It takes a heavy dose of wishful thinking to assume that states are any more capable of creating a large system of Perry quality preschools than they have been of designing networks of high quality K-12 schools.

Even if that were possible, it would close the achievement gap, she writes. Perry graduates did better than the control group, but much worse than children from middle or working-class families.  And “these mediocre gains were not passed on to the next generation.”

The first two children of Perry grads (there’s no data on later siblings) were just as likely as the children of non Perry-ites to go on welfare, drop out of school, and to get arrested; their earnings were also similarly anemic.

In other words, the graduates of the best preschool designed for low income kids we’ve ever had in the United States  grew up to become low skilled, low income single parents, less costly to society than others without their early educational advantage, but equally likely to raise children who would cycle back into poverty.

“It’s parents, not formal education, that makes the difference for young children’s readiness for school and success once they get there,” Hymowitz concludes.

If Mama ain’t functional, ain’t nobody functional.

About Joanne


  1. “Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman …”
    Awarded by the same people who gave the Peace prize to Le Duc Tho, Yasser Arafat, and Barak Obama.

    • Mark Roulo says:



      The folks *deciding* who gets the Nobel Peace Prize each year are the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The folks deciding who gets the Economics prize are the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.


      But, yeah, those three awards have really helped the award itself look fairly silly and political. I’d add Al Gore to the list because of the fairly weak relationship between his global warming activism and the terms of the prize:

      …shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

      Which of the three did Al or any of the other three achieve? Or, really, Jimmy Carter?


      The prize has really morphed into a “good person we like” award, and the Jimmy Carter Center’s work on global health certainly falls into that category. But the work doesn’t match the terms of the prize.

    • Yes; Getting the nobel prize for economics is the same as getting the nobel prize for peace.

      If you have a criticism of James Heckman, it is fine, write the criticism. I wonder what you gained by criticizing the fact that he got a nobel prize for Economics.

  2. Universal pre-school is awesome for reasons that have nothing to do with achievement gaps.

    Fundamentally, unless you’re providing low-scoring kids some sort of intervention that you’re *not* providing high-scoring kids, it doesn’t even make sense to talk about closing achievement gaps unless you think that out-of-school factors matter literally not at all.

    • “unless you’re providing low-scoring kids some sort of intervention that you’re *not* providing high-scoring kids”

      I suggest hitting the high scoring kids on the head.

      • GoogleMaster says:

        Or we could force them all to wear earbuds that are playing a constant cacophony, and glasses that make everything all blurry…

        • Mark Roulo says:

          And some of them could wear weights.

        • I found it hilarious that the high achiever’s sons’ middle school all had earbuds in. Kept the random outburts of noise from the included out, and let them listen to their audio books or music.

          The idea above of teaching ‘school’ or ‘middle class’ skills to preschoolers will be rejected as developmentally inappropriate. Maybe when they get to grade 1…

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      “Universal pre-school is awesome for reasons that have nothing to do with achievement gaps.”

      It might not be apparent to you, Paul, but simply stating your opinion without supporting facts or even assertions is less than worthless.

      I like steak. Steak is yummy.

      See how that works?

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I suppose you could argue for free, all-day preschool for poor kids on the idea that feeding them 3 hot meals, taking them away from their neighborhoods, and teaching social skills might be better for them than leaving them with their parents, if you believe that the problem with parents in poverty is that they’re bad parents who damage their kids.

    However, I don’t see how you’d get from that to UNIVERSAL pre-K, since Pre-K seems to have no benefits for middle and upper class kids.

    And if you really believe that poor people can’t be trusted with children, why stop at 3 hots? Why not just confiscate all the kids and let the state raise them? Like the Indian Schools, but for inner city kids…I’m sure that would work out great…