Why ‘Preschool for All’ won’t work

The Strong Start for America’s Children Act — President Obama’s Preschool for All idea — has been introduced in Congress. “Decades of research tell us that … early learning is the best investment we can make to prepare our children for a lifetime of success,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Research doesn’t say that, writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst, who’s spent most of his career “designing and evaluating programs intended to enhance the cognitive development of young children.”

Advocates for universal preschool cite two “boutique” programs from 40-50 years ago and “recent research with serious methodological flaws,” writes Whitehurst. They ignore the large, randomized National Head Start Impact Study, which found no differences in elementary school outcomes for Head Start kids. They also ignore “research showing negative impacts” on children in federally funded child care “as well as evidence that the universal pre-k programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, which are closest to what the Obama administration has proposed, have had, at best, only small impacts.”

A newly released Vanderbilt study analyzes Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K (TN-VPK) for four-year-olds from low-income families. Researchers compared children who won a lottery for pre-K slots with those whose parents applied but lost the lottery, making it a “gold standard” study, Whitehurst writes. Furthermore, TN-VPK set high quality standards similar to Obama’s Preschool for All proposal.

Yet all cognitive and social/emotional gains were lost by the end of kindergarten. In first grade, the control group did better than the former pre-K students on seven of eight cognitive skills, though the advantage was significant only for quantitative concepts.

Cognitive Outcomes at the end of first grade

The control group also did better — but not significantly — on four of seven measures of social/emotional skills or dispositions, as rated by first-grade teachers.

TN-VPK participants were less likely to have been retained in kindergarten than non-participants (4% to 6%), researchers noted. But kindergarten retention doesn’t predict later school performance, Whitehurst writes. The TN-VPk students also were more likely to receive special education services (14% to 9%).

These findings, which match the Head Start study, are “devastating,” writes Whitehurst. “Maybe we should figure out how to deliver effective programs before the federal government funds preschool for all.”

About Joanne


  1. I think children should also be taught potty training at pre schools.

  2. Honestly, what’s the difference between kids that are in pre-school programs and kids that are in standard daycare programs. Most of the daycare programs for older children in my area are structured very similarly to a preschool with emphasis on numbers, letters, language, social skills, etc.

  3. palisadesk says:

    *Some* preschool programs work, but they don’t resemble the usual suspects. Shep Barbash wrote about one example here:

    When followed up as adults, many had maintained their gains, were in middle class or professional fields and jobs. A more extensive publication goes into the individual data in detail; I can post the peer-reviewed journal cites if anyone wants them.

    The key factor is that disadvantaged/poor/whatever children need an accelerated learning environment in pre-K, not a playschool.

  4. Unfortunately, Englemann and Direct Instruction are about as welcome in the educrat world as skunks at a lawn party. The same goes for the concept of efficiency: NEVER WASTE TIME. The fact that disadvantaged kids are seriously behind by the time they’re three means that they are in desperate need of the fastest ways to learn the things their advantaged peers already know – particularly because their advantaged peers are learning more new things every day. Millions of kids have been sacrificed to the ed world’s alternate reality and the theories and practices it generates.

    • Because their parents bear no responsibility of course…..

      • Neither then do the education professionals who are being paid to the job.

        • You’re kidding right? All you, and people like you, do is talk shit about teachers. Every problem is the fault of shitty teachers.

          If you want to make signifigant changes in education today, you have to address the two things that haven’t been addressed in the last thirty years.

          Crappy parents and kids who won’t learn. It wasn’t teachers who invented the concept of “acting White”.

          • Is that all I, and people like me, do?

            Wow, I thought I, and people like me, were unhappy with the broken promise of the public education system. Just give the experts enough in the way of resources and authority and good things were bound to happen is the not-too-well hidden assumption in mandatory attendance and tax support. Turns out, not so much.

            And your explanation is that the people who do have a choice, and are being paid to do the job, have no responsibility while the the people, big and little, who have no choice are saddled with all the responsibility? Yeah, try selling that proposition anywhere outside the teacher’s lounge.

            In fact, it’s the unusual parent who isn’t prayerfully thankful to have a decent teacher at the front of the class their kid is in and it’s an unusual administrator who gives a flying damn whether there’s a decent teacher in any classroom under their purview.

            Given that state of affairs, what do you think has to change?

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            It’s true. If you have a kid from a decent home whose parents expect good behavior at school, even a mediocre teacher can handle the class and pass on information. If the kids are coming from bad homes and education is just something they do because you have to be at school anyway and they feed you free meals, then it takes a phenomenal teacher to get anywhere, and that teacher will probably burn out pretty quickly.

            That said, pre-school for all won’t make a difference. It won’t change the culture, and its main benefit will come from having the kids watch tv for fewer hours a day.

            We need to work towards helping people out of the permanent underclass– which means restoring the idea of marriage, a work ethic, etc. Instead, if you read Charles Murray, you see that the values of the permanent underclass are just creeping into more and more of the population…

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I think you’re being unfair to allen. He talks shit about lots more people than teachers. He talks shit about anyone he thinks “doesn’t care.”

            He is a liberal in a fun house mirror.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Most liberals believe that governments are motivated by public interest while businesses are motivated by private interest. Thus, people who work for government by definition care.

            Allen knows that governments are financed by taxes that people are required by law to pay. Governments don’t have to find willing buyers. If someone tries not paying, they will have (some of) their property taken, and may even find themselves in jail. Thus, people who work for government by definition don’t care.

    • The fact that disadvantaged kids are seriously behind by the time they’re three means that they are in desperate need of the fastest ways to learn the things their advantaged peers already know

      They’re behind from the earliest time it can be measured, leading one wag to opine that it begins 8 months and 29 days before birth—but no sooner.

  5. Silly, silly people – you’re looking at it from the wrong angle. Of course “pre-school for all” won’t solve the problem of the achievement gap. That was never its purpose. Rather, “pre-school for all” solves the problem of make-work programs for adults.

    “Pre-school” is somewhat of an oxymoron, anyhow – a “school” before school? Whatever happened to “nursery school”?

  6. Any plans for improvement really needs careful study. As long as a child knows how to read and write before first grade is okay. Other skills can be learn along the way. Also, the parents should be involve in their child’s education and not just leave everything under the hands of the teacher.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Actually, “reading and writing before first grade” doesn’t even make that much of a difference. Kids who start learning later quickly catch up to the early readers, especially if they learn with phonics. I home school, and don’t bother with reading and writing before first grade unless the kids are interested. BUT my non-readers at the beginning of first grade are reading Beverly Cleary unassisted by the end.

      Actually, pre-K and K would be BETTER spent on field trips, listening to good history,science, literature, poetry, and folk tales, and learning basic social skills. Pushing academics earlier hasn’t actually helped kids, and it doesn’t respect developmental milestones.

  7. “Wow, I thought I, and people like me, were unhappy with the broken promise of the public education system. Just give the experts enough in the way of resources and authority and good things were bound to happen is the not-too-well hidden assumption”

    Well your first mistake was mistaking the promise of the political Left with the promise of education. It is an easy enough mistake to make given the Left’s domination of education for the last 40 years.

    Those of us on the Right are not surprised that government’s problems can’t be solved by throwing “experts” and money at them.

    Government is the problem, not the solution…which is why I support charters, and vouchers. Give parents and students more choice and more rights, and demand more responsibility from them. (which is precisely what most charters that work do)

    My plan? Begin by throwing out every “reform” of public education in the last 40 years (including the Dept of Education) and go back to drill and kill and phonics. Bring back vocational ed and dump college for all. Bring back expulsion and consequences.

    • Got it.

      You’re firmly and vociferously on both sides of the debate – parents and kids are the problem and parents and kids are the solution. There’s nothing wrong with the public education system that better parents and kids won’t solve and the public education system sucks.

      Oh, and it’s not the official “Left” that’s at fault. The left’s merely taking advantage of a pre-existing situation.

      The public education system emerged at a time when “the left” didn’t exist, except to the extent greed, laziness, irresponsibility and immaturity have always been elements of human society, so the condition of public education isn’t their fault. It’s the “fault” of the basic idea.

      The notion that if only experts were given enough authority, as in mandatory attendance, and enough resources nothing but good could possibly result.

      A dawning realization of an increasing portion of the electorate seems to be that it’s an inherently flawed idea and the beginning steps to dealing with that flawed idea are showing up in the continuing success of charters, vouchers, tax credits, teacher and school accountability measures – although those are doomed to failure as part of the district model – which, taken together indicate diminishing faith the model of public education that’s held sway for a century and a half.


      In a world in which free trade is more and more where people turn for a route out of poverty my worry is that some other nation will realize that public education’s an idiotic, and self-destructive, idea and do away with it before we here in the U.S. do away with our public education system. That’s an area in which I would much rather America lead the world then play catch-up.

      • “You’re firmly and vociferously on both sides of the debate – parents and kids are the problem and parents and kids are the solution.”

        How is that being on both sides of the problem? The problem is…students and parents aren’t being held responsible for their behavior when it comes to education. My solution? Make them more responsible.

        • That’s not a solution, that’s a sentence.

          Any details on how this solution’s going to be implemented or is the “solution” to divert from the less appetizing discussion of the responsibilities of the professionals? If it’s the latter don’t over-exert yourself, it’s a lost cause. The voters can’t vote a newer, better class of parent to suit your phony “solution” but we sure can start reducing the authority of the public education system inherently increasing parental authority.

          Oh, and the way that’s being on both sides of the debate is that parents and kids aren’t the problem and they aren’t the solution.

          The problem’s the public education system and the solution’s getting rid of it.

          Once it’s clear that the district system is unnecessary, which charters are in the process of proving, the waste and inertia that are part and parcel of the district system will no longer be written off as an inescapable element of a necessary system. They’ll just be waste and inertia for which there’s no longer a justification since charters are capable of providing doing everything district schools are capable of and for less money. Then it’ll be hasta la vista, baby.

          • You’re dreaming. There will always be a public school system. If for no other reason it will be needed for the kids of parents who don’t give a shit, and for students who get kicked out of the charter schools.

          • Dreaming? Hmmm, that’s probably close enough to “delusional” to be considered a psychiatric diagnosis which is generally the refuge of those who don’t want to give consideration to a possibility that begins to appear to be a probability.

            Once the foundational institution of the public education system, the school district, comes to be considered superfluous, even destructive, of the desire to educate kids you sure other, unquestionable assumptions about public education policy, like mandatory attendance, won’t come in for examination?

            OK, that’s crazy talk. Parents have to be forced to do what they can’t be prevented from doing, right?

          • The voters can’t vote a newer, better class of parent to suit your phony “solution”

            Mandatory Norplant has never made it to voters… yet.

          • Yeah, too bad about that. By the way, where’s the next eugenics convention going to be held?

            How’s the campaign to purify the human bloodline going? Haven’t heard all that much about that experiment lately.

  8. Deirdre Mundy – The underclass is a genetic problem not a cultural problem.

  9. you sure other, unquestionable assumptions about public education policy, like mandatory attendance, won’t come in for examination?

    Let’s pretend for a moment that you could convince millions of American parents to give up their free child care….what are you going to do with millions of children and teenagers roaming the streets everyday?

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Eliminate the minimum wage and build workhouses? Give every family a free video game system and one free game a month so that the hordes of kids stay home and game? (cheaper than school, and probably just as effective for ‘intentional non learners.’

    • Oh sure, mandatory attendance is toast.

      Like I’ve already written, what’s the sense in a law that mandates parents do what a legal prohibition can’t stop them from doing? Only someone brought up with the idea, and with insufficient imagination to consider any other possibility, would find any reason to defend the idea. Well, that or someone who has a personal interest in maintaining the policy. Which one are you?

      Fortunately the first group is a diminishing asset as charters provide a means for parents to reassert their proper place as prime determiners of the course of their children’s education. I rather doubt they’ll one day come to their senses and realize how wonderful they had it when they had to accept whatever the local public education franchise was dishing out.

      And to answer your question, not a damned thing. Those millions of children and teenagers are no more my responsibility then they are yours and if their parents are going to be as irresponsible as you seem to desperately want to believe they will be then we’ll deal appropriately with the children of irresponsible parents and not of the responsible parents.

      That would be a rather better approach, and more in keeping with the concept of a sovereign citizenry, to the problem then simply assuming all parents aren’t responsible enough to see to the education and behavior of their children.

      • You’re kidding right? The biggest problems facing public education today are exactly “parents aren’t responsible enough to see to the education and behavior of their children.”

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          True– there’s been a big cultural shift– from “If you screw up at school, you’re in trouble at home” to “Your job as a teacher is to MAKE SURE my child learns.” But people have free will– you can’t FORCE them to learn. You can’t force a change in internal states…

          I think we need some sort of CCC for teens who hate school…. let them drop out, live in camps, and dig ditches for a few years (at sub minimum wage.) Some of them might decide to go back once they saw what their options were….

        • Kidding? No but it should be a comfort to you to take refuge in the certainty that I’m mentally ill for even thinking a thought as heretical as an end to mandatory attendance. Perhaps there’s an entry in the DSM-V for what simply must be the inherently pathological belief that there’s some defect in the idea that parents must be forced to do what they can’t be prevented from doing.

          I’ll wait while you check.

          Would *you* care to speculate what the logical end point of increasing parental authority over the education of their child might be?

          You do understand that the current model of public education is *public*, i.e. a manifestation of our political system and not a feature of the landscape, right? And, as a manifestation of our political system, despite your most strenuous disagreement and bug-eyed disbelief, it can be changed or even dispensed with? I mean, somewhere inside you understand those things, right?

          If you don’t it’ll hardly matter to anyone but yourself since the public education system’s clearly worn out all the excuses for a failure to deliver on the duties that justify as anti-democratic an institution as the public education system and we, the people, seem to be resolutely about the task of returning the authority usurped by mandatory attendance laws to its rightful owners.

          To repeat my question, would *you* care to speculate what the logical end point of increasing parental authority over the education of their child might be?

          • “To repeat my question, would *you* care to speculate what the logical end point of increasing parental authority over the education of their child might be? ”

            On your terms in todays society? How about anarchy, ignorance and violence.

          • So you’re of the opinion that a substantial portion of parents, were they not compelled to send their kids to school, would allow them to run wild?

            Got kids of your own?

          • “Anarchy”, huh?
            Why suppose that parents, as voters, are more effectively concerned for their children than are parents as parents? That is, why suppose that voter-controlled aggregate decision-making processes will outperform, on average, individual decision-making processes? Available evidence indicates that individual decision-making processes outperform political decision-making processes in education. Compare the performance of homeschoolers and independent schools to State- (government, generally)-operated schools.

  10. “How’s the campaign to purify the human bloodline going? Haven’t heard all that much about that experiment lately.”

    Sure you have. It’s called Planned Parenthood today. it’s working exactly as Margaret Sanger and her Progressive buddies designed it, preventing the birth of millions of minorities and the underclass.

    • Meh, weak tea by comparison to the sort of future envisioned by the likes of Margaret Sanger. I’m sure Engineer-poet has more forceful, but necessary, means in mind.

      • Oh, no force at all.  Just that the taxpayers have a moral right to say “If you demand our help to feed, house and clothe your babies, we insist that you not have any more until you are self-sufficient again.”

        People who object to the terms can go to private charities with looser criteria for assistance.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      There’s a little irony here. If conservatives were really little racists who wanted to keep America white, they would be big proponents of abortion, rather than, as most of them are, opponents.

      • Roger, I really wish it were true that all conservatives were as genuinely pro-life as you are. Unfortunately, the most powerful factions on the political right are those that maintain that the working poor can choose between hunger or abortion. Read Engineer-Poet’s post. Do you really believe that he would tell a poor pregnant woman who works at Walmart to choose life? He is the voice of modern conservatism.

        A truly pro-life society would be one in which all people who work full time are able to afford food, housing, and medical care. I used to believe that support for working families was a conservative value. Certainly that was the case for Ronald Reagan. Sadly, times have changed.

        • 1) Bullshit…no one is starving in America…the biggest problem among the unemployed and low wage workers is obesity.
          2) You are not supposed to raise a family on one minimum wage income.
          3) The attempt to use abortion as a form of population control comes from the Left, and has always come from the Left. Look up Maragret sanger and the Progressives.

          • The average age for a fast food worker is 29 and most fast food workers receive public assistance due to their extremely low wages. McDonald’s encourages its employees to file for food stamps (It also encourages them to apply for government assistance for medical care and utilities). With the recent cuts in food stamps, McDonald’s recommended that its employees break their food into little pieces so that it will take longer to eat and they won’t feel as hungry. If a 29 year old woman who works at McDonald’s told you she was pregnant, would you really consider it helpful to tell her that she isn’t supposed to raise a family on minimum wage? A McDonald’s CEO makes $25,000 a day while his workers live in misery. This is what I mean by a culture of death.

            I am no fan of Margaret Sanger, but I now realize that threatening to put a pregnant woman in prison for trying to get an abortion is not effective. The best way to limit abortions is to provide working families with decent wages.

  11. Thanks, everyone. That was entertaining.
    Institutional variables matter: teacher qualifications (abolish the Education degree), course sequencing, time on task, etc. The system excuse, “it’s the parents”, does not explain the systematic influence of district size (smaller is better) and age (start) of compulsory attendance (later is better). The system excuse does not explain the difference in performance between holistic, child-centered, critical pedagogy, silver-hooved-unicorn methods and what we once called “teaching” (phonics, memorization of multiplication tables, algorithms, diagramming sentences).
    As ever, “What works?” is an empirical question to which an experiment, a federal system with numerous local policy regimes or a competitive market in instructional services, will provide more reliable answers than will a State-monopoly provider.
    So, yes, abolish compulsory attendance laws, child labor laws, and minimum wage laws. Let parents determine how their children will spend the time birth and adulthood.

    • I’m an entertaining guy.

      Now, would you care to speculate on the effect of mandatory attendance on the behavior of parents? Of kids?

      • No need to speculate; the evidence is in. Here.
        E.G. West
        Carleton University, Department of Economics
        Ottawa, Canada
        Schooling and Violence

        “We conclude that so far there is no evidence to support the 19th century Utilitarian hypothesis that the use of a secular and public school system will reduce crime. Beyond this there is some evidence indeed that suggests the reverse causality: crime actually increases with the increase in the size of the public school sector. Such findings will undoubtedly stimulate further work, and clearly more research would be helpful. But if further investigation confirms the findings of Lott, Fremling, and Coleman,
        we must reach the verdict that the cost of public schooling is much higher than was originally believed. Published figures show that the conventional cost of public schools, on average, are already just over twice those of private schools.11 When we add to this the extra social costs of increased delinquency, the full seriousness of the inefficiency of our public school system is more starkly exposed.

        I apologize in advance if the control characters don’t work.

        • Meh, once again. Not impressed even if the study supports my preconceptions.

          Maybe *because* the study supports my preconceptions. I’m rather more suspicious of people who tell me what I want to hear then the reverse.

          In a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal the reasons for one person to impose their views on another ought to very few and always under review for revocation. On that basis alone an institution like public education ought to have no place in this nation but the Constitution only serves to impede our rush to foolish excess. There’s no way it can prevent such a pursuit from reaching its goal if sufficient will exists.

          • What would impress? There’s a lot more in that vein.
            I agree about the wisdom of caution and incremental change. While I believe that society as a whole would be better off without government operation of school, tax support of school, compulsory attendance laws, child labor laws, and minimum wage laws, that’s not my recommendation. I support policies that enhance parent control: charter schools, tuition tax credits, vouchers, self-paced curricula, mandatory (for schools to offer) credit-by-exam for all courses required for graduation, and (my preference) Parent Performance Contracting.

          • I’m sure there is a lot more in that vein. Just as I’m sure there’s an equal amount of research in contradiction. I’ll take sociological research seriously when those who do it come to terms with the fact that whatever it is they are doing it isn’t science. So to answer your question, I’ll tell you when I’m impressed.

            As for the rest of your post, I pretty much agree.

            As a nation we would have been better off without laws that sap personal initiative, responsibility and autonomy. But I’m also aware that going cold turkey is just about the worst way to get a monkey off your back. We’ve given in incrementally to the murmured promises of freedom from guilt, responsibility and duty. It seems proper to reclaim our heritage in the same, incremental fashion.

  12. “The best way to limit abortions is to provide working families with decent wages.”

    The best way to furnish working families with decent wages is for there to be families in the first place.

    Poverty in the United States today is almost exclusively the result of ignorance and poor choices.

    • Jobs that pay poverty wages include working in the fields, caring for the sick and elderly, cleaning homes and businesses. These things are not “poor choices”. Life itself depends on the people who do this kind of work.

      Roger, your post is so thoughtful and compassionate, you could almost persuade me to return to conservatism. Unfortunately, people like you are rare among modern conservatives.

      • Deport illegal immigrants and enforce immigration laws and I bet the pay for those jobs will go up pretty damn quick.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I don’t consider myself a conservative. I seem to agree with everyone about some things and disagree with everyone about some things. Maybe the most accurate word would be the one my daughter uses to characterize her sexuality: queer.