One of the biggest surprises of the State of the Union Address was President Obama's proposal for making preschool available to all American children. His base is delighted: Universal preschool has been high on the liberal wish list for many decades. But the reality of deficits as far as the eye can see and the mediocre condition of American schools requires some hard-nosed questions about what the tens of billions of dollars required for universal preschool programs will actually accomplish.
It's easy to understand the appeal of universal preschool. Preschool, or nursery school as it used to be called, is now a necessity of middle-class life, a way of gently introducing children to the discipline and structure of formal education, of teaching social skills, of expanding a child's social network and of providing child care for working parents.
Offering those benefits to children whose parents cannot afford the often daunting tuition seems like a no-brainer for anyone committed to reducing poverty and inequality. After all, cognitive research supports common-sense intuition that the early years are vital to a child's development. For many, high quality universal preschool programs in places such as France and Sweden have always served as a model of governmental commitment to equality and basic fairness.
But two words should dampen some of this enthusiasm: Head Start.
Launched in the mid-1960s as part of the federal War on Poverty, Head Start was based on precisely the idea that government schooling could compensate poor children for their disadvantage.
It hasn't worked out that way.
More than a $150 billion and almost 50 years later, the program is a dud. A report from October 2012 is only the most recent of a long line of studies that show fleeting cognitive gains from Head Start. The rigorously designed study adds that there is little difference in the domains of "social-emotional, health and parenting practices" between third-graders who attended a Head Start program and those who did not.
The most severe critics object that Head Start has turned into nothing more than a massive jobs program for adults. That might be too cynical, but Head Start does provide a cautionary lesson for the president. It's almost impossible to satisfactorily reform, not to mention undo, a large government program that employs tens of thousands of people, especially one promising to improve the lives of poor children.
Given the unimpressive record of Head Start, why do we always hear that "preschool works"?
Researchers, including Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, pin their hopes on a few programs: Perry Preschool, a two-year model program in Ypsalanti, Mich., and Abecedarian at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Perry graduates have been followed for four decades and, compared with a control group with similar characteristics, they have been less likely to go to jail, become teen mothers and go on welfare; they're also more likely to earn more money.
A 2007 book by Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller argues that Perry can explain only about 3% of the difference. But even if we attribute all the gains to Perry, the fact is it was a "hot house program" expertly designed and tended, multiyear, with superb teachers who were flush with a spirit of innovation.
Abecedarian, meanwhile, was an intensive, full-day program for 57 very high-risk kids ages 1-5. The two programs enrolled a grand total of 115 kids. (By contrast, the 2012 Head Start study followed nearly 5,000 subjects.) To say that because Perry and Abecedarian improved lives so will state-run, federally regulated programs is like saying because Valentino can produce exquisite hand-beaded lace gowns, so can Target.
The other reason for the mantra "preschool works" is that it often does, for a year or two. Many programs, including some Head Start classes, do improve cognitive skills and school readiness. But by third grade, the positive effects fade away. The truth is that preschool can't "work" unless kindergarten, first and second grade and all the other grades do. And so far they don't.
Supporters hope that universal preschool puts disadvantaged kids on a bridge to the middle class. The ineffective schools attended by poor kids ensure it will remain a bridge to nowhere.
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