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Can Universal Preschool Solve All Our Problems? Can Universal Preschool Solve All Our Problems?

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Can Universal Preschool Solve All Our Problems?

During the State of the Union, President Obama said "study after study" proves preschool gives kids a lifelong advantage. So what are these studies?


(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)()

Of the many goals President Obama declared during the State of the Union on Tuesday night, one seemed particularly sweeping. 

“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road,” the president said. “So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”


Preschool for all! You can imagine the fiscally conservative eye rolls at the mention of such a grand governmental gesture. “It sounded like a Christmas list to me,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., told The Washington Post. “The question is, how do you pay for [preschool] in every state?”

To that question, Obama and universal preschool advocates would argue that it pays for itself in future economic growth.

Broad details of the initiative were released Thursday by the White House. Under the plan, the federal government would subsidize the cost of preschool to states, providing more money to low-income areas. States would have to meet certain quality standards, such as having accredited teachers and assessment systems in place. Only 4-year-olds would be eligible for preschool, but the government would continue investing in Head Start, the program that provides services from birth to age 3. The proposal would also encourage states to expand full-day kindergarten programs.


As the president said during his State of the Union, the policy is based on research that asserts preschool makes for a more prosperous society.

Here a cursory summary of that research.

Preschool is a great investment (if you're willing to wait 20 years).

According to a 2006 Pew report, investment in preschool, while initially costly, greatly pays off down the road. “Although in the near-term it is easier to create new jobs through economic development subsidies, preschool’s long-term effect on job creation is more than twice as large as business subsidies,” the report states. Granted, it takes a few decades for the benefits to mount. 


That graph looks nice, but how much is this investment going to cost? We must be talking "big government" dollars.

We are. Again, according to the 2006 Pew data, it will cost an extra $8 billion a year to fund preschool for all 4-year-olds as Obama is proposing. But that's just for a three-hour program. Full-day programs would cost much more, as would extending programs to 3-year-olds. Similarly, the Center for American Progress estimates that a plan to fund preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds would cost $98.4 billion over 10 years.

But as Wonkblog points out, this could be a smart investment for the government. Kids who do better in school get better jobs, make more money, and pay more taxes. And preschool is thought to greatly enhance the educational outcome of low-income children (more on that below). Plus, they are less likely to drain federal resources by avoiding jail and welfare. According to an analysis by University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman, the rate of return per dollar spent on preschool is between 6 percent and 10 percent, which is better than most investments. 

OK. That’s a lot of cash. But what’s the proof that this makes meaningful gains in individual achievement?

The Perry Preschool Study has one of the furthest-reaching data sets on this. In the early '60s, the experimenters placed 123 poor black students in Michigan into either a preschool program or no preschool. They have been tracking this group for more than 40 years.

In striking ways, the achievements of those in the preschool program exceeded those who did not attend.

Another, much larger 25-year study showed similar findings. In a group of 1,400 low-income children, those who had been exposed to preschool at age 3 were 9 percent more likely to have graduated from high school and were 22 percent less likely to have been arrested by age 28. 

Preschool has also been shown to enhance IQ in disadvantaged children by 4 points or more.

These findings are astounding! But be careful in extrapolating to the population at large.

Keep in mind that the participants of these studies are children from low-income families. They have the most to gain from preschool. In an academic review of the state of the field, researchers at the University of Virginia found:

    Children from lower-income families tend to gain more from good preschool education than do more advantaged children. However, the educational achievement gains for non-disadvantaged children are substantial, perhaps 75% as large as the gains for low-income children.

Also, children from higher-income households get a leg up in achievement through other environmental factors. For one, wealthier parents are more likely to read and speak to their kids. And the amount of words a child hears correlates with his or her academic achievement. A nutritious diet helps too.

Also, keep in mind that not all preschools are created equal.

Simply mandating a national day care is not going to do the trick. “The effects of various program models are quite varied,” the authors of the UVA study write, “with some being rather weak and ineffective while other scaled-up programs narrow the achievement gap by almost half.”

What other concerns about universal preschool do skeptics bring up?

Like all lines of research, there’s a healthy amount of doubt.

Causality is always tricky in sociological research. Large correlational studies are useful because of their relative ease and scale. But they can’t claim causation. Small experimental studies, such as the Perry Preschool Study, can make a bolder claim. But the small sample size limits confidence in the results. 

The academic performance boosting effects of preschool have been shown to fade over the course of elementary school. But analyses show that they don’t disappear completely. Again, from the UVA overview:

    These effects decline as students move from their immediate experience in preschool to elementary school, to adolescence, and to adulthood follow-up, but they do not disappear. In a comprehensive meta-analysis (Camilli et al., 2010) that controlled for quality of the research design, the estimated effects of preschool education on children’s cognitive development dropped substantially (from about 0.70 standard deviations, SD, to 0.35 SD) as one moved the outcome assessments from the end of the program through age 10.


At the very least, it can be argued that preschool does no harm to long-term academic achievement and socioeconomic standing (although one study found it can negatively affect a child’s social skills). Because preschool is most beneficial to poorer students, increasing access to it could only help close the stubbornly persistent achievement gap between whites and minorities. Nevertheless, it will be a tough sell to Republicans who may think the upfront cost of the plan is too much to justify benefits that won't be seen for decades.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of the Perry Preschool Study. It is Michigan.

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