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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Does preschool help kids -- or harm them?

Expanding free preschool is a progressive priority. Early experiments in the 1960s and 1970s -- Perry Preschool program and the Abecedarian project -- showed significant long-term benefits for very low-income children, and there's a big push to create free programs for all four-year-olds -- and maybe three-year-olds.

But modern preschool and pre-K programs don't show the same results, writes Sarah Schwartz in Education Week.

Anamarie Whitaker, an assistant professor in human development and family sciences at the University of Delaware, analyzes the disappointing results in a new working paper.

Perry and Abecedarian were small, very well-funded programs that proved difficult to reproduce at scale, says Whitaker. Part of the impact was creating "safety net" services that many families now get without signing their kids up for preschool.

In addition, it's easier to make a difference for very disadvantaged children than for the mix of children served by today's "universal" programs. Perry and Abcedarian participants didn't do well in the long run in terms of education, employment or anything else, but they did better than the controls, who did very, very poorly.

It's not just that preschool and pre-K are less effective, writes Max Eden on RealClearEducation. "The weight of the evidence shows" these programs cause harm.

In a recent report, education researchers look at a long-run study of Head Start, and analysis of pre-K programs in Boston, Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina, he writes. They find short-term benefits fade and long-term impacts are largely negative.

Harvard professor David Deming, who found benefits for former Head Start students in a 2009 study, took a longer look 10 years later. "The originally observed benefits largely faded, and the impacts for the later cohort of students were largely negative (more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability, more behavior problems at school, more idleness as an adult, more teen parenthood)."

The Tennessee pre-K study showed that by third and sixth grade, participants had lower academic achievement, more behavior problems, and were more likely to be diagnosed with a disability. The Georgia pre-K study found negative effects on reading and math achievement by the end of fourth grade. The North Carolina pre-K study showed lower math skills and worse behavior by the end of kindergarten.

The researchers were dubious about a Boston study, which produced "incoherent" results, writes Eden. Contrary to established theory, "benefits largely accrued to white and affluent students," not to disadvantaged students.

The usual response to narrative-challenging results is to say that programs with null or negative effects are not "high quality." Whitaker and her colleagues are trying to figure out what elements are essential to creating quality programs that do more than provide free child care. Essential and replicable at scale.

Universal preschool is expensive. Providing "high quality" -- lots of well-trained, well-paid teachers working with small groups of children -- is very expensive. It's a shame to spend all that money to produce more behavior problems and lower academic skills.

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Jan 22

One problem these days is the lack of discipline. My wife has taught pre-K at several conservative Christian preschools, and even *there*, the very word "discipline" is frowned upon. Everything must be "positive," and nothing is deemed "punishment" for fear of hurting the little dears' self-esteem. The main thing the kids seem to learn is that they can ignore authority figures with very few negative consequences.


Jan 21

My mother ran nursery schools, Head Start programs, and child care centers from the 1950s through the 1980s, all of which were highly successful. The programs only work if you have talented teachers and committed parents engaged with their children. Her nursery school programs worked because she had committed, usually well-educated, involved, parents and talented, dedicated staff. That kind of nursery school was essentially a multiplier for the kids, providing more and more varied experiences and inputs than most parents could do on their own. Her programs with low income families worked because she was able to recruit and keep really good teachers, was able to get parental buy-in and involvement.

Ultimately, it's like any school. You can make schoo…


Jan 21

A Nobel Laurette once said "Progress in science comes when experiments contradict theory."

Repeat the experiment, or someone else could repeat the analysis.

What assumptions does the theory make, and what assumptions does the experiment make?

Real progress takes a lot of work.

Is this a failed experiment (sad)? Or is it a step towards a better theory(great)!


Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Jan 21

The major defect of the early positive studies, that programs tailored to children of seriously deficient parents do not generalize to the general population, was obvious from the start. The long-term harm should have been suspected. Humans evolved in close families. Gandhi wrote that parents are the natural teachers of their own children.


Jan 21

Hey, don't knock taxpayer-subsidized pre-school. It gets otherwise unemployable social sciences grads off the street to work as caregivers (please don't call them "babysitters") for single parents with enough gumption to get a job. Or maybe even go to college and get a degree sciences.

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