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.

Pre-k for all?

Education reform has proven unpopular with teachers’ unions, a key Democratic constituency, so President Obama’s second-term education agenda will focus on preschool and college aid, writes Joy Resmovits on the Huffington Post. “Teacher quality measures have all but dropped off the administration’s billboard agenda . . .  and after Tuesday’s speech, both teachers’ unions issued effusive statements.”

Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, criticized the president’s call for two years of pre-kindergarten for all students.  “The equity agenda was missing from the first term and it’s also missing from the second term,” she said.

” . . . the thing for me that’s missing is the recognition that some schools, some families, some kids need more help than others,” Wilkins said. “When we have a tight budget … poor kids need pre-K first.”

Obama said high-quality preschool saves $7 for every dollar spent. That number comes from the Perry Preschool Project in the 1960s, which involved poor black children with low IQs  and dismal prospects and included weekly family visits by well-educated teachers. (The Perry kids did poorly in school and life, but not as poorly as the control group.) Head Start hasn’t produced lasting benefits. Preschool programs for middle-class kids do not improve school readiness.

Obama’s plan is expected to resemble a Center for American Progress proposal to provide two years of pre-kindergarten to every child, “paid for with federal funds matched by state spending, to the tune of $10,000 per child,” reports Resmovits. That could cost up to $100 billion. “It is unclear how the president would pay for the program while not increasing the deficit, as he promised Tuesday,” she concludes.

First, fix Head Start, argues Education Gadfly.