Last Updated:September 20 @ 08:20 am

Universal pre-k not the solution

By USA Today

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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Kay Hymowitz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal.

(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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6 Comments

  1. David in MAComment by David in MA
    February 19, 2013 @ 9:36 am

    “Universal pre-k not the solution”

    It is if your a communist.

    Old communist saying: Capture the children, capture the nation.

    The earlier you get their minds, the easier it is to convince……

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  2. bulletfish2013Comment by bulletfish2013
    February 19, 2013 @ 9:44 am

    This is one of the direct methods, of one the steps that Marx laid out to to turn our county Communist. Don’t think so, start paying attention.

    CPUSA says as one of their Key action items is: “Get the children away from their parents as soon as possible”. And here it is under the cloak of giving our children a better education. Watch the video agenda
    http://www.agendadocumentary.com/

    Here is the best description of what is going on in our country today, Lt. gen. (Ret) Jerry Boykin
    http://www.morningstartv.com/oak-initiative/marxism-america-part-ii

    Make up your own mind.

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    • mysticComment by mystic
      February 19, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

      For Bulletfish2013: I have no idea who gave your post one star…but I can take an edu’ma’cated guess as to what their ideology is. : }

      Five star post…great video…and should be absolutely mandated viewing for anyone who finds themselves waking up to a different America then they remember.

      I don’t want to shove religion down anyone’s throat. I don’t want to tell people what they can and can’t do (within the law of course.) I do not want someone else telling me what I can and can’t do, what job I can aspire too, what education I can and can’t have, what foods I can and can’t eat, or how much of that food I can eat or not eat. I don’t want anyone telling me what my doctor can and can not do for me when in need of medical care… I don’t Washington dictating to me what they ‘think’ (if that is even possible for them to do anymore) I should be doing, how I should be living and who I am supposed to be. It’s against everything our Founding Fathers fought and died for.

      Time to re-take our liberties, our God given rights as defined in the Bill of Rights and Constitution. It is time to step up instead of being stepped on!

      ~M

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  3. CynComment by Cyn
    February 19, 2013 @ 11:26 am

    Oh, are the liberals not teaching kids about sex early enough?

    I know that they certainly are not planning to actually ‘teach’ the kids ‘reading, writing & arithmetic’.

    They must feel they need an earlier start on brain-washing the little ones in Statism & how to ‘worship’ Obama…

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    • rochesternativeComment by rochesternative
      February 19, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

      You are correct there will not be any teaching of skills if those running the program have the philosophy of NACEYE (sorry,keyboardmessedup)

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  4. NY GrahamComment by NY Graham
    February 21, 2013 @ 11:09 am

    Can anyone one tell me what is stopping school districts from introducing pre-K programs now? If it is such a great idea, let the people tell their local governments that they want it. But then of course, they will have to pay for it.

    This is another of Obama’s bone-headed ideas that he says will help the middle class and grow the economy, but we all know will do neither while further adding to our crippling debt. It is a transparent crumb for the teacher’s unions to keep them in line.

    Pathetic.

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  5. Pingback: The Case for Saving Head Start | ACROSS THE FADER – ORG

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