Would universal preschool pay off with valuable benefits? No, experience has shown few gains

2013-03-25T00:00:00Z 2013-03-25T10:48:15Z Would universal preschool pay off with valuable benefits? No, experience has shown few gainsLindsey M. Burke Arizona Daily Star
March 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Editor's note

Every Monday we offer pro/con pieces from the McClatchy-Tribune News Service to give readers a broad view of issues.

During his State of the Union address, President Obama proclaimed that "every dollar we invest in high-quality early-childhood education can save more than $7 later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime."

Sounds impressive, but that "return on investment" figure reflects a lot of wishful thinking.

It appears to be based on the Perry Preschool Project, a study conducted more than 50 years ago in Ypsilanti, Mich. The Perry Project tracked 123 low-income, at-risk children, 58 of whom were assigned to a treatment group that received high-intervention preschool services.

Following the participants through age 40, the Perry program found those in the treatment group were more likely to be employed, to have graduated from high school and to earn more than the control group. They were also less likely to have been arrested five or more times by age 40. As a result, Perry researchers estimate a $7.16 return on every dollar invested.

But the findings from the Perry Preschool Project have never been replicated in state preschool programs.

To make generalizations from this small, high-intervention program to a large-scale program would require what researcher Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution calls "prodigious leaps of faith."

Indeed, it is more likely that the president's universal preschool proposal will produce results like those logged by state programs in Georgia and Oklahoma.

Obama said evaluations of these programs "show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own." But, in the words of the great lyricist Ira Gershwin, "It ain't necessarily so."

Georgia has had universal preschool for all 4-year-olds since 1995, yet graduation rates have failed to significantly improve. In Oklahoma, home to taxpayer-funded preschool since 1998, graduation rates have actually declined.

And, as researchers Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation point out, universal preschool has failed to reduce the reading achievement gap between white and black children.

In Oklahoma, the gap has remained completely unchanged - a 22-point gap on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Nor has it improved significantly in Georgia.

Moreover, Obama's universal-preschool proposal might not even perform as well as the Georgia and Oklahoma programs. His far larger-scale program is far more likely to look like the failed Head Start program.

In December 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that administers Head Start, released a scientifically rigorous evaluation of more than 5,000 children participating in the program.

It found that Head Start had little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting practices of participants.

Policymakers guided by evidence should proceed with caution when considering large-scale preschool programs.

Excellence in early education requires abandoning the presumption that preschool for all is preferable to family care. It also requires eliminating ineffective programs, and reforming those that remain.

There are ways to improve early childhood education. Making Washington the nation's nanny is not the way to do so.

Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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