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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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