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Universal Preschool: A Failure


Q. Can we hold out a lot of hope for disadvantaged children that government-funded preschool will help put them in better shape for learning when they get to kindergarten?


No. There's a substantial body of evidence that universal preschool - "free" preschool for all -- produces virtually no lasting benefits for most children.


While it is true that children who have attended preschool enter kindergarten better prepared than their non-preschool classmates because they tend to know their ABC's and colors better, and generally can sit still and stand in line better, those gains fade within just a few years, study after study has shown.


Oklahoma and Georgia are two states that have spent billions implementing universal preschool. Georgia's fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading score in 1992, when it started universal preschool, was 212, three points below the national average. But by 2007, after years of universal preschool, it was 219 - that looks a little better, but it's actually still one point below the national average, after spending all that money to try to improve academic performance.


Furthermore, Georgia's math score was three points below the average in 1992. By 2007, it was even worse, at 235 -- four points below the national average.


Oklahoma's results are even worse. Its fourth-grade NAEP reading score in 1998, when it adopted universal preschool, was 219 -- six points above the national average. Last year, it had dropped to 217, three points below the national average.


Similarly, Oklahoma's math score was right at the national average in 2000. But by 2007, after nearly 10 years with universal preschool, the state math average it had dropped two points below the national average.


It would be a far different story if those two states were posting improved academic performance scores among the children who had the preschool benefits. But they aren't. The facts show that universal preschool is a failure.


Then there's Tennessee, which spent $250 million into expanding a state preschool program three years ago. A government-paid study in mid-2008 concluded that, except for "at-risk" kids, there was "no statistically significant difference" between the educational performance of second-graders who attended preschool and those who did not.


It isn't that Tennessee preschools aren't very good, either. Tennessee's preschool standards meet nine out of the 10 criteria of National Institute for Early Education Research, among the highest compliance with preschool standards in the nation.


If you hear someone claim that universal preschool is worth the investment because of what we found out from Michigan's 1962 Perry Preschool Program, be advised: that's propaganda. The positive effect on high-school graduation rates, adult crime, earnings and welfare-dependence of Perry participants is often lauded as an example of how good "free" preschool would be for kids. But Perry had a grand total of 58 low-IQ kids in its treatment sample. All were from extremely disadvantaged, minority backgrounds. That's hardly a solid model for shaping preschool policy for the entire nation.


University of Chicago Nobel Prize-winner James Heckman, who has extensively studied Perry, gave a June 2005 interview with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and when asked whether public funding should go for universal programs or at-risk kids, Heckman responded: "It is foolish to try to substitute for what the middle-class and upper-middle-class parents are already doing."


What's more, a joint analysis that Bruce Fuller, a University of California at Berkeley professor, conducted with Stanford University researchers, found that all-day, multi-year preschool may actually emotionally harm mainstream kids. He found that kindergartners with 15 or more hours of preschool every week were less motivated and more aggressive in class. Likewise, Canada's C.D. Howe Institute found a higher incidence of anxiety, hyperactivity and poor social skills among kids in Quebec after universal preschool.


Homework: Learn more by searching "universal preschool" on the website of the think tank of the Reason Foundation,


By Susan Darst Williams Preschool 08 2008



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