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The ‘Universal Pre-K’ Fallacy

Universal pre-kindergarten schooling, every progressive’s fondest dream, is back in the news. Bill de Blasio, the overwhelming favorite in the New York mayoral race and the likely future head of the nation’s largest school system, is pushing universal pre-K as his No. 1 policy proposal. President Obama offered a national version of this idea in his February State of the Union address and has since pushed hard in other settings. Two problems: Such programs would have negligible educational value, and they would be massively expensive.

Mr. de Blasio wants to raise taxes on the city’s rich to collect $530 million annually mostly to fund full-day pre-K. The money would go for 68,000 lower-income New York City children, most of whom already attend publicly funded pre-K either full- (20,000) or part-time (38,000) at a current annual cost of about $190 million. Mr. de Blasio’s proposal means nearly tripling the annual cost for roughly the same group of children.

“Universal” is a misnomer. since Mr. de Blasio’s program would serve only lower-income kids out of a total New York population of about 120,000 four-year-olds. Perhaps, by saying “universal,” Mr. de Blasio intends to rally public support with something seemingly equally available to all. Mr. Obama takes a similar tack, offering the combination of a lofty “universal pre-K” vision with a more limited and targeted program in practice. Yet his program would also cost tens of billions of dollars.

Mr. Obama has expressed dissatisfaction with the availability and quality of most existing preschool. He says he wants “high-quality” preschool. What he doesn’t say is whether the existing “high-quality” programs show significant educational gains. In his State of the Union address, the president was vague, saying “Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.” Mr. Obama defined “better” as “boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

Few citizens will be familiar with the studies the president refers to. But they are well-known—mythic, really—inside the universal-early-education movement. The most famous is the Perry Preschool Project.

Perry was a 1960s experiment that was too small to be statistically valid. It involved 123 “at risk” low-IQ (70-85) children from one poor minority neighborhood. The kids were divided into a study group that received two years of high-quality preschool and a control group that didn’t. High quality meant five days a week; four certified public-school teachers for 20-25 kids; weekly 1.5-hour teacher visits to the home; monthly teacher meetings with parents; a public-school classroom facility. Higher quality than anything else in public school—then or now.

What did all this achieve? The Perry project claimed a large gain in IQ—15 points. But the gain had disappeared by the end of third grade. Perry claimed other big gains—but not much in learning. In fact 80% of reported gains constituted savings to society (e.g., incarceration costs) from fewer crimes committed by the study group relative to the control group.

The Perry control group experienced no organized day care or pre-K programming whatsoever (Perry predated the federal Head Start program which began in 1965 as a short summer enrichment program). That made the study-to-control-group comparison look very good indeed.

The Perry experience has passed into history, since now we have a more comprehensive school-year, or even full-year, Head Start program for lower-income preschoolers.

In February, Mr. Obama said that “today, fewer than three in 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.” According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, however, seven in 10 4-year-olds attend some kind of preschool program, so it isn’t clear which “three” the president meant. Three of those 10 are in private school. Preschool attendance in the lower-income demographic is even higher because of Head Start (one in 10), and there are widespread state-level, taxpayer-funded public programs primarily for the disadvantaged (three in 10).

Action speaks: If parents enroll seven out of 10 children in some kind of preschool, then that choice demonstrates that almost everyone supports preschool programs of some kind, especially to enable parents to work. And that’s what this is really about: Providing parents with free day care under the guise of education.

There is no research supporting the president’s proposition that formal schooling can begin effectively in preschool, even if it is delivered as rigorously as Mr. Obama proposes: that is, by college-educated, certified public-school teachers “paid comparably to K-12 staff,” who provide instruction in “small class sizes” following a “rigorous curriculum.”

In 2005, the RAND Corp. conducted a general survey of early education programs and research. Rand found only 20, mostly very small, programs or studies that showed any “evidence of effectiveness.” Note the absence of the word “educational” in RAND’s description.

Head Start was the only large program in RAND’s 20. And that $8 billion-a-year program has been found to be ineffective in educational terms by most research. That includes the “Head Start Impact Study,” a multiyear study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services during the Bush and Obama administrations. Released in December 2012, the study found “no significant impacts” in education—in the short or long term.

Even the assertion that preschool yields better “life outcomes” is suspect. Preschool doesn’t lead to significant improvement in elementary and secondary school achievement, and thus not to college or trade-school matriculation. The linkages should be continuous: Better preschool education should lead to better elementary and secondary-school performance, which in turn would lead to postsecondary education, jobs, crime-free adolescence, stable family formation, etc.

Universal “high quality” early-childhood education sounds wonderful. It sounds so good that one wants its promises to come true. But until it is proven to be effective, taxpayers and legislators—whether in Washington or New York—would be justified in resisting the urge to direct enormous resources toward what may be a utopian mirage.

Meanwhile, if improving early education is the goal, let’s leave formal schooling to begin in kindergarten and first grade, where improvements are needed and can be implemented with demonstrable effects. Most states, including New York, don’t require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten. If politicians want to help children, universal full-day kindergarten nationwide would be a good place to start.

As appeared in The Wall Street Journal on October 16, 2013.


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