Some “education activists” continue to call for more government-funded preschool programs despite mounting evidence that they don’t work.
Studies of large-scale preschool programs in Quebec and Tennessee show that vastly expanding access to free or subsidized preschool may worsen behavioral and emotional outcomes for students. Even proponents acknowledge that universal preschool does nothing to improve future academic performance.
Proponents hang their hats on two studies that have found benefits of preschool attendance: the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Preschool Study. The Perry study began in 1962 and included just 123 children (58 in the treatment group), all from low-income households. It tracked a half-century-old program that provided around-the-clock, comprehensive preschool and care services to a few dozen “at-risk” children.
The Abecedarian Program, which began in 1972, had a sample of 111 (57 in the treatment group) children from low-income households. The program included individualized education services, transportation, and social and nutritional services, among other interventions.
Both studies identified positive outcomes from these boutique programs, such as increasing the likelihood of attending college and lower incarceration rates. Yet both studies suffer from flawed methodologies. Among their shortcomings: violation of random assignment rules, small sample size and management of the evaluations by the program developers themselves.
So why do government preschool proponents continue to appeal to these two nearly half-century-old studies? Because their findings have never been replicated on a larger scale.
In fact, the dated nature of the findings should largely exclude them from consideration of the efficacy of subsidized preschool programs.
Current, rigorous evaluations of preschool programs tell a very different story. Recent evaluations of Head Start and Tennessee’s large, statewide preschool program should carry much more weight with policymakers considering expanding taxpayer-funded preschool.
With regard to Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for children from low-income families, a random assignment evaluation by the Department of Health and Human Services (which manages Head Start) found little to no impact on the parenting practices or the cognitive, social-emotional and health outcomes of participants. Moreover, on a few measures, access to Head Start actually had harmful effects on participating children.
A team of researchers from Vanderbilt University found that the Tennessee program, open to some 18,000 children and lauded as a model, state-based preschool program, produced no significant differences between the control group and the preschool group by the end of kindergarten. In other words, even so-called high-quality preschool programs are failing to live up to the promises made by proponents.
It is also worth examining Quebec’s publicly funded day care program. The Canadian province introduced universal, low-cost day care for children through age 4 beginning in 1997. The program has had a large impact on the day care market: Privately funded child care arrangements have almost disappeared. Quebec now has the highest rate of subsidized child care in Canada, at 58 percent in 2011.
And how are the children faring? Economists Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber and Kevin Milligan found that children exposed to the program were subsequently 4.6 percent more likely to be convicted of a crime and 17 percent more likely to commit a drug crime. Their health and life satisfaction rates were worse.
Proponents of universal government-subsidized preschool have to grapple with the fact that universal programs have failed and had negative effects on children.
What’s more, additional federal subsidies for early childhood education would crowd out private providers from the preschool market, which ultimately would limit options for families and trap their children in counterproductive public programs.
Universal preschool proposals would create a subsidy for middle-income and upper-income families while adding to the tax burden for Americans. A growing body of empirical evidence suggests that, in the long run, the government-run preschool experience leaves many children worse for the wear.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times