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
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
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
more by searching "universal preschool" on the website of the think tank of the
Reason Foundation, www.reason.org