Preschool: We don’t know what works

Preschool is not a no-brainer, write University of Virginia professors Daniel T. Willingham and David W. Grissmer in a New York Times commentary. Research is murky on how to design preschool programs that help disadvantaged children.

When New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, went to Albany earlier this week to talk about his program for universal preschool, the discussion reportedly focused on funding, not on whether or how preschool would actually help children. President Obama seemed equally confident when he introduced his plan for universal preschool last year, flatly stating, “We know this works.”

Actually, we don’t.

A preschool that “works” could mean different things. It might simply be a safe spot for kids to go. Or it could be a means to get poor kids ready to learn reading and math; they are currently eight to 10 months behind wealthy kids when they start kindergarten. Mayor de Blasio and the president are more ambitious: They think that preschool ought to change life trajectories, resulting in more high school graduates and fewer prison inmates.

Preschool proponents cite the Abecedarian and Perry preschool programs from the 1960s and ’70s, which had long-term benefits. But these were “expensive, intensive” boutique programs that haven’t been replicated.

Preschools in large state programs  show variable results. Head Start, which focuses mostly on social activities, shows “minimal” academic benefits, the professors write. Pushing a kindergarten curriculum into preschool doesn’t work either.

 The preschools that do work teach less well-prepared kids precursor skills, the kind that many wealthy kids learn at home, through activities that don’t look especially academic. Songs and rhyming games, for example, help children hear that words are composed of individual sounds, making it easier to learn how to read letters. Kids gain knowledge about the world — important for reading comprehension in later elementary years — when they are read to by their parents and when they listen to them. Jigsaw puzzles and globes help kids develop spatial skills, which later help with math. Household rules teach children to learn to control their impulses, part of learning self-discipline.

If these skills aren’t being taught at home, it’s hard for a preschool teacher to make up the difference in a few hours a day, they write. “We need a national study . . . beginning at age 3 and continuing through at least second grade” to determine what “works” — and can be replicated.

About Joanne


  1. I hate to be a pedant, but we DO know what works, and it’s not pre-K, or K, or even school at all. Healthy, intact families produce healthy intact kids. SIMPLE AS THAT.

    • The Leftists who push for (endlessly) more money to solve the “root causes” of poverty are unwilling to look at young, single parenthood as the root of any problems.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    Project Follow Through.

    • Yes, but Englemann’s excellent outcomes will continue to be ignored by the ed world because his methodology is in direct opposition to its most cherished Romantic, constructivist, “progressive” tenets. The kids are just SOL

  3. Alice Amelia says:

    Late in life I have discovered Montessori (through my grandchildren) and have been very impressed. Has anyone studied using Montessori with disadvantaged kids?

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Maria Montessori actually developed the program for the neglected slum kids of Italy. It just caught on w/ the wealthy b/c it worked. However, Montessori teachers need specialized training — so it might not be scalable….