Americans overwhelmingly believe that parents know best how to
raise young children. This is confirmed in poll after poll. ("For
Better or Worse, Results from a Newsweek Gallup poll, 1989,"
Newsweek, Special Issue on Children, Summer 1990, p. 18.) Experts,
too, agree that the family home is the optimum setting for early
Yet the federal government ignores this definitive data. In
fact, the federal government is greatly increasing its efforts to
take very young children out of their homes and put them, for part
of the day or all day, into government-funded institutions.
Washington is even launching a campaign to persuade parents to part
with their sons and daughters at ever earlier ages.
These actions amount to a federal family policy that undermines
families. And this policy is becoming more expansive, aggressive,
and expensive. Examples:
Activists are seeking to increase funding beyond the
$23.5 billion already authorized for child care and early education
programs for 1991-1995. The total includes $4.5 billion to set up
child care bureaucracies at the state level.
George Bush is asking for a nearly $700 million increase in the
fiscal 1992 federal budget for Project Head Start, already the
largest federally funded early childhood development program. The
program would cost just over $2 billion.
The Bush Administration wants to spend $60 million in fiscal
1992 on Even Start, a Department of Education program similar to
Head Start. The budget request is a 200 percent increase over
fiscal 1990 and a 21 percent hike over fiscal 1991.
A congressionally appointed, taxpayer-funded panel is
considering ways to conduct national academic testing of 3-year-
A taxpayer-financed study for the Department of Education pleads
the case for a federally directed, federally subsidized system of
national child care standards and early childhood education
services. The Department is listening to no opposing views.
Despite a glaring lack of scientific evidence that early
childhood programs help children now or in the future, as their
sponsors claim, the federal government is spending ever more
taxpayers' money on them.
To be sure, for severely disadvantaged children, Head Start and
other programs initially improve academic performance. But studies
show that the impact does not endure for more than a year or two.
Despite this, Head Start is often touted as a "magic bullet" that
helps poor children succeed in school. Based on the available
evidence, Head Start may deserve support as a welfare program
providing nutrition and care for poor children, but not as an
educational jump start.
Says J. Craig Peery, professor of human development at Brigham
Young University and the author of the 1981 Project Head Start
reauthorization bill: "I think we know a lot about early childhood
education -- and it doesn't work." (Telephone interview, March 7,
Many experts feel that early education that emphasizes
performance is not only not beneficial but potentially harmful.
Says pediatrician and author Benjamin Spock: "When we instruct
children in academic subjects, or in swimming, gymnastics, or
ballet, at too early an age, we miseducate them; we put them at
risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage for no
useful purpose. There is no evidence that such early instruction
has lasting benefits, and considerable evidence that it can do
lasting harm." (Quoted in David Elkind, Miseducation, Preschoolers
at Risk (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), p. 4.)
Aside from one small study that finds significant long-term
gains, even the most positive analyses of early childhood programs
acknowledge few lasting effects. Indeed, the most comprehensive
Head Start study compares school testing of Head Start children
with those not enrolled and concludes: "by the end of the second
year there are no educationally meaningful differences." (Executive
Summary, The Impact of Head Start on Children, Families and
Communities, Head Start Evaluation, Synthesis and Utilization
Project, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 1985,
In contrast, research shows that children in out-of-home
programs for extensive periods tend to be more aggressive, have
more psychological problems, favor peer groups over parental
authority and get into more fights than home-reared children.
(Nicholas Zill, Developmental, Learning and Emotional Problems:
Health of Our Nation's Children, cited in "Family-Induced
Disturbances Affect One in Five Children," Education Daily, Vol.
23, No. 238, December 11, 1990, p. 3. Also, Deborah Vandell and
Mary Corasaniti and others cited by J. Craig Peery in "Children At
Risk: The Case Against Day Care," The Family in America, Rockford
Institute, February 1991.) Young children are also more likely to
contract serious illnesses in institutional settings. (Reed Bell,
"Health Risks From Daycare Diseases," in Phyllis Schlafly, ed. Who
Will Rock the Cradle?, Two Conferences on Childcare (Eagle Forum
Education and Legal Defense Fund, 1981), pps. 115-122.)
Even Yale psychologist Edward F. Zigler, widely known as the
foremost proponent of early childhood development programs, warns
that such programs may not be suitable for all children: "There is
a large body of evidence indicating that there is little if
anything to be gained by exposing middle-class children to early
education." (Edward F. Zigler, "Formal Schooling for
Four-Year-Olds? No" in Sharon L. Kagan and Edward F. Zigler, eds.,
Early Schooling (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), p. 30.)
He adds: "We must listen to those families who neither want nor
need their young children placed in preschool .... whenever the
family situation permits it, the best place for a preschool child
is often at home." (Zigler, op. cit., p. 34.)
The virtual absence of proof that programs have long-term
benefits and growing evidence that children in institutional
settings are at risk should ring warning bells in Washington. It
should make the federal government proceed with caution before
funding existing and new programs for young children -- until
research proves that such programs not only do not harm children
but significantly help them.
Yet this evidence routinely is ignored at the Departments of
Education and Health and Human Services, and sometimes even at the
White House. Ignored too is the fact that the most important
cultural problem facing America is dysfunctional families -- the
families in which children are most often at risk.
What is puzzling is that some leading officials rhetorically
admit that the well-being of American families is the key to a
healthy society, even while the agencies run by these officials pay
scant heed to the rhetoric. Louis W. Sullivan, Secretary of Health
and Human Services, earlier this month told the annual legislative
conference of the National League of Cities: "So many of our
problems -- drug and alcohol abuse, the spread of AIDS, teen
pregnancy, infant mortality, youth homicide, among others --
reflect the personal isolation, alienation and despair that follow
from the widespread erosion of family and community." (Paul Taylor,
"Family Seen as Key to Aiding Children," The Washington Post, March
11, 1991, p A-5.) Adds Minneapolis Mayor Donald M. Fraser: "We know
we have a welfare system that discourages marriage.... we have a
[federal] public policy that is designed to destroy families and
nobody talks about it." (Ibid.)
Sullivan, a Republican, and Fraser, a Democrat, both call for
the abolition of federal programs that weaken families. (Both men,
however, support expansion of Head Start. Sullivan calls it a
"middle ground" that shores up families without supplanting them.)
This call merits very broad support. To succeed, it requires a
strategy whose first steps include:
1) Ending the funding of all early childhood education
programs except those for the poor.
2) Supporting research into early education for disadvantaged
children to determine if there is a model that works and can be
replicated. Such efforts should target only severely disadvantaged
children, follow methods for which there is some evidence of
success, and use a controlled experiment format.
3) Evaluating independently all existing federally subsidized
early childhood education programs. Conflicts of interest should
preclude bureaucracies that administer programs from evaluating
4) Expanding the use of vouchers or tax credits to allow parents
to choose the best education and care for their children. Parental
involvement should be a paramount consideration in any program.
Early childhood education may indeed be worthwhile for some
disadvantaged children, but studies indicate parental involvement
with children is the key developmental factor.
5) Reducing federally imposed financial burdens on the family.
In 1948, a family of four of median income paid 2 percent of its
income to federal taxes. This year, that family pays 24 percent in
federal taxes in addition to state, local, and excise taxes.
(Robert Rector, "Fourteen Myths About Families and Child Care,"
Harvard Journal on Legislation, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Summer 1989), p.
542.) Some ways to aid families include: increasing the personal
exemption for dependents, increasing the earned income tax credit
and extending it to more families, and redesigning welfare programs
to encourage fatherhood, not father abandonment. Minnesota, for
instance, has waived welfare rules that have been driving fathers
out of the house.
The Federal Role
Despite lack of evidence that early childhood programs
substantially benefit children, the U.S. government agencies
actively promote these programs in several ways.
* The Tax Credit for Dependent Care allows parents to deduct
from their gross income a portion of child care expenses on their
federal returns. The deductions totalled $3.895 billion in fiscal
1990 and are projected to total $4.395 billion in fiscal 1992.
(Telephone interview with Terry Harrow, legislative branch director
for Human Development Resources, U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, March 12, 1991.) The program has the merit of
giving parents economic assistance to choose the kind of child care
they want, including religious- affiliated facilities. The trouble
is that the program discriminates against parents caring for
children at home. In effect, the government says: "If you leave
your child with someone other than one of the parents (or
grandparents, or aunts, or neighbors), you get a tax break."
* Child care provisions in the 1991 Omnibus Budget
Reconciliation Bill will cost an estimated $23.6 billion over five
years for several programs. (Other provisions are: a Child Health
Insurance Credit. This $5.2-billion program assists families in
buying health insurance for children. In 1994 the maximum credit
will be $483. A "Wee Tots" Supplemental Tax Credit. This $700
million program gives families with a child under one year a
supplemental credit or allows them to choose the Dependent Care Tax
Credit. By 1994, the "Wee Tot" maximum credit will be $403.) Among
1) The Earned Income Tax Credit. Projected to reduce
federal tax revenues by $12.4 billion over five years, this gives a
small measure of tax relief (a direct refund of up to a maximum of
$953) to poor families with children.
2) Child Care and Development Block Grant. Estimated to cost
$4.45 billion over five years, this gives money to states based on
the number of low-income children in the state under age five. Some
75 percent of the money can be used for services to children; the
other 25 percent is targeted for quality control, early childhood
programs, and day care for latch-key children. Because of fuzzy
wording, the money for children's services could be siphoned into
campaigns for a child care bureaucracy.
3) Title IV Family Support Ways and Means Grant. Allocating $1.5
billion over five years, this gives money to poor working families
for child care to keep parents off welfare rolls.
4) Standards and Training Ways and Means Grant. At a cost of
$250 million, this will help states improve standards for child
care, monitor compliance, and provide training for child care
The largest federally funded early childhood development program
is Head Start. Begun in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson's War on
Poverty, Head Start is a comprehensive early childhood development
program providing children ages 3 to 5 from low-income families
with educational, social, medical, dental, nutritional, and mental
health services. (Head Start: A Child Development Program,
pamphlet, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1990, p.
2.) In the past quarter-century, more than 11 million children have
been Head Start clients. Beginning with a summer-only enrollment of
561,000 and a budget of $96.4 million (Project Head Start
Statistical Fact Sheet, January 1990, p. 2.) the program grew
rapidly. By 1966 the budget was $198.9 million, enrollment rose to
733,000, and the program expanded to full-day. (Ibid.) In 1982,
when seasonal programs were replaced by year-round-only services,
395,800 children were enrolled in the program, which had a budget
of $911.7 million. (Ibid.) During the 1990 school year, more than
488,000 children were enrolled at a estimated average cost of
$2,767 per child (Ibid., pp. 1,2.) while the budget grew to $1.386
billion. The program has a paid staff of 79,549, plus 615,000
volunteers. (Ibid., pp. 2,3.) Some 54 percent of Head Start
families are headed by a single parent. Handicapped children
account for 13.5 percent of enrollees. Up to 10 percent of Head
Start slots can be filled by children not deemed at risk.
Head Start gives children hot meals, comprehensive health care
including dental treatment, and social activities. Parents are
offered positions on policy-making boards, workshops on child care
and nutrition, and training for Head Start jobs. (Serving the
Nation's Children and Families, Administration for Children, Youth
and Families, Department of Health and Human Services, undated, p.
Head Start's lack of quantifiable success for long-term
effects does not mean that it has not done any good; some poor
children get meals and health care that they might not otherwise
receive; the program has reduced the number of poor children
misdiagnosed as retarded, and some studies indicate improvement in
school attendance, academic performance and IQ test results for the
first year or two. There is, moreover, anecdotal evidence of
individual successes. Some of Head Start's operating premises --
parental involvement, self-help emphasis, local control -- are an
improvement over those of typically top-heavy bureaucratic welfare
While Head Start rightly claims modest success in aiding
some disadvantaged youngsters, the program mainly thrives on good
intentions. The most comprehensive study of Head Start was
completed in 1984. Among its most important findings: short-term
gains fade within a couple of years. (R. H. McKey, et al. , The
Impact of Head Start on Children, Families and Communities, 1985,
cited in Ron Haskins, "Beyond Metaphor, The Efficacy of Early
Childhood Education," American Psychologist, February 1989, pp.
274-281.) Says Ron Haskins, a developmental psychologist and
welfare analyst for the House Committee on Ways and Means: "Results
from Head Start projects are uncertain for the special education
effects, and there is virtually no evidence [that Head Start
reduces] teen pregnancy, crime, welfare, or unemployment." (
Haskins, op. cit., p.279.)
No major studies of Head Start have been released since 1985,
and none are underway, according to Esther Kresh, a senior
researcher at Head Start. Observes Kresh, who favors more studies
into Head Start's effectiveness: "There isn't anything going on
now. The whole body of research was in the early days." (Telephone
interview, March 8, 1991.) Kresh adds that "the real study has
never been done" on Head Start. As a Head Start proponent, she
believes that such a study would reveal that the program works,
although not to everyone's satisfaction. For one thing, the program
keeps changing. Says Kresh: "It's gone from being a
child-development program to a full-family development program."
(Interview, op. cit.)
A Head Start advisory panel last year recommended studies
"to identify early and intermediate outcomes" and factors outside
the program that affect children's later chances for success, such
as family life and schooling. (Head Start Research and Evaluation:
A Blueprint for the Future. Recommendations of the Advisory Panel
for the Head Start Evaluation Design Project, Department of Health
and Human Services, September 1990, p. 4.) The report affirms
agency officials' belief in the success of other child development
programs, but cautions that "policymakers and the general public
should not be oversold that early education and intervention
programs such as Head Start, even when implemented in a
high-quality fashion, are some kind of panacea that succeed even in
the absence of appropriate ongoing child and family support." ( Op.
cit., p. 14.)
Head Start lacks a serious benefit-cost analysis, which is a
method of expressing costs and benefits in dollars and comparing
them. "Unfortunately, there are few benefit-cost studies of early
childhood education," says Ways and Means Committee welfare analyst
Haskins. "....The only thorough benefit-cost studies published to
date were performed on one project -- the Perry Preschool program."
(Haskins, op. cit., p. 279.) And, as Haskins emphasizes, "Perry is
not Head Start." (Telephone interview, March 19, 1991.)
To sum: Hard evidence is lacking for claims by Head Start
proponents. As such, before Washington spends more taxpayer money
on Head Start, the program should be researched thoroughly. Without
conclusive evidence of lasting benefits, Head Start should not be
expanded, nor should similar programs such as Even Start.
A little-known program, Even Start was begun in 1989. Now the
U.S. Department of Education is seeking $60 million in the fiscal
1992 federal budget for Even Start, almost triple its fiscal 1991
outlay. Even Start's purpose, as stated in the Federal Register, is
to assist eligible local educational agencies in "providing
family-centered education projects to help parents become full
partners in the education of their children, to assist children in
reaching their full potential as learners, and to provide literacy
training for their parents." (Federal Register, Vol. 56, No. 23
(February 4, 1991), p. 4390.) Although Head Start also has parent
education, Even Start requires it. Even Start is home-based, and
enrolls children aged 1 through 7; Head Start is for children ages
3 to 5 and is based in classrooms.
To enroll in Even Start, parents must reside in a poor area and
be eligible for adult education assistance programs. Even Start
requires parent involvement in all activities and stresses adult
literacy, parenting skills, and parent-child interaction. Asked to
compare Head Start and Even Start, Tisch Rennings, Even Start
education program specialist at the Department of Education, told a
Heritage Foundation researcher: "There really isn't any difference.
It's essentially funding for the [early childhood] programs from a
different source." (Telephone interview, February 26, 1991.) There
are no studies to date on Even Start.
The Early Education Lobby
Taxpayers are funding a campaign to increase federal support of
early childhood development programs. One of these efforts is
"Excellence in Early Childhood Education: Defining Characteristics
and Next-Decade Strategies," a pamphlet published by the Department
of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement. It
is written by Sharon L. Kagan, associate director of the Bush
Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University.
She is active in child care lobbying organizations like the Child
Care Action Network, the Children's Defense Fund, and the National
Association for the Education of Young Children.
"Excellence in Early Childhood Education" calls for more federal
oversight, national standards, and more federal subsidies to child
care professionals. The 29-page essay, part of a four-part series
of "Public Policy Perspectives," calls for, among other things, a
broad campaign to persuade Americans that "early care and education
programs are now a permanent part of the social landscape." (Sharon
Kagan, "Excellence in Early Childhood Education: Defining
Characteristics and Next-Decade Strategies," Office of Educational
Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, July 1990,
p. 21.) By publishing this essay, the Department of Education is
lobbying for expansion of programs for which there is little proof
Kagan consistently argues for a larger federal role in early
childhood development. To do this, she wants "a single agency at
the Federal level." (Kagan, op. cit., p. 4.) Her essay includes no
dissent from the view that early childhood programs are effective,
essential, and should be brought under a federal umbrella. Parental
rights receive only lip service. The pamphlets, which cost $4,080
to print, plus a $2,500 fee for Kagan, (Telephone interview March
18, 1991, with Lewis Walker, chief of the Educational Information
branch of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement,
Department of Education.) were distributed to about 4,000 educators
and policy makers across the country. Although the pamphlet
contains the caveat that it "does not necessarily represent
positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education, and no
official endorsement should be inferred," the Department's blessing
is clearly implied. Indeed, the Department has issued no companion
publication with opposing views.
National Test For 3-Year-Olds
A federal panel is exploring ways to test children as young as
age 3 to determine "the skills and attitudes of the school-entering
population." ("Congressional Panel Examines Testing
Three-Year-Olds," Education Daily, December 11, 1990, p. 2.) Yet
kindergarten begins for most children at age 5 or 6. Testing
children at age 3 serves no purpose other than to provide
statistics that can be used to marshall support for schooling at
The Special Study Panel on Education Indicators was mandated in
the Hawkins-Stafford Elementary-Secondary School Improvement Act in
1988. Last December in a preliminary draft of a report to be
released this June, the panel recommended national testing of
3-year-olds. Says panel chairman Alan Morgan, who is New Mexico's
state school superintendent: "We won't break the cycle of poverty
unless we intervene early." (Ibid.) He maintains that testing
3-year-olds "will allow us to determine the sources of education
inequities near their roots, rather than after children have
already spent time in elementary school." (Ibid.) The test, whose
format is still under study but which one panelist calls "a Pampers
SAT," would be expensive, requiring one-on-one sessions with "an
adult trained in early-childhood development." (Ibid.)
Such a testing program could be the first step in the formation
of compulsory schooling for very young children.
Why Early Childhood Education?
"Early childhood education" generally refers to developmental
programs designed for 3- to 5-year-olds. Some experts prefer the
term "early childhood development" because they fear children might
be harmed by undue academic pressures.
Programs vary widely, from custodial care, which is basically
baby-sitting, to highly structured curriculums. Children spend as
little as a couple of hours a week at a care facility or as much as
ten hours a day, five days a week.
The problem is not the concept of preschools. Even families with
one full-time parent often enroll young children in nursery schools
two or three mornings a week for social activities and to give
tired parents a short break.
The problem is that federally funded programs are growing
rapidly despite scant evidence that they work. Says developmental
psychologist Peery: "Nobody is doing any critical thinking. It's a
mantra now." (Telephone interview, March 7, 1991.)
In the mid-1970s, several model education programs were
organized into a consortium study, whose findings were released in
1982. (Irving Lazar, et al., Lasting Effects of Early Education: A
Report from the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, Monographs of
the Society for Research in Child Development, 47, 2-3 Serial No.
195, 1982, cited in Haskins, op. cit., p. 274-282.) With the
exception of a study of the Perry Preschool Program, the analyses,
taken as a whole, reported substantial initial gains in children's
cognitive performances, followed by declines within a year or two,
with inconclusive evidence about long-term effects. Perry
Preschool, which early education proponents cite frequently as
proof that such programs work, is the only program for which
studies report dramatic long-term results. Neither the Perry
Preschool study, however, nor the programs in the consortium were
representative of most preschools. Notes welfare analyst Haskins:
"These intervention programs were conducted under ideal
circumstances: Skilled researchers, capable staffs, ample
budgets... it seems unwise to claim that the benefits produced by
such exemplary programs would necessarily be produced by ordinary
preschool programs conducted in communities across the United
States." (Haskins, op. cit., p. 277.) Head Start, on the other
hand, he adds, "can be offered as a close approximation of what
could be expected from universal preschool education for poor
In recent years, interest in early childhood education has
increased for several reasons:
1) America's failing educational system. Test scores
are still falling, dropout rates are high, especially among the
poor, and literacy skills are declining, despite the highest level
of public spending on education in American history. Some people
fear that America's children will grow up unable to compete in a
2) A plethora of seemingly intractable social problems,
particularly in America's inner cities. Early intervention is seen
as a way to equip children with skills that will allow them to
succeed in school and later in life.
3) The entry of many women into the workforce since the 1960s,
which has created a demand for non-maternal child care. Just as it
would be unreasonable to fashion a federal policy to induce all
mothers to stay at home, it is just as unreasonable to induce all
children into day care, even that which emphasizes early childhood
education. As Heritage Foundation family policy analyst Rector
writes in the Harvard Journal on Legislation: "We must ask whether
government policy should actively discourage the home rearing of
children." (Rector, op. cit., p. 541.)
To justify the drive for more federal spending on programs,
early childhood advocates make several claims, among them:
Traditional child-rearing, that is, family life, is "obsolete"
or a mere idealization. "Less than 10 percent of families" now fit
the Ozzie and Harriet model, says Representative Patricia
Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat who has just assumed chairmanship
of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families.
(Cited in David Blankenhorn, "Ozzie and Harriet: Have Reports of
Their Death Been Greatly Exaggerated?" Institute for American
Values, Family Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 2-3 (Summer/Fall, 1989), p.
10.) Another typical comment is found in a report funded by a grant
from the Department of Education: "[Norman] Rockwell's Portrait of
American Family Is Changing: Only 4-7 percent of American families
have an employed father, full-time homemaker mother, and two
children." (National Commission on Working Women, cited in
Resegregation of Public Schools: The Third Generation, Network of
Regional Desegregation Assistance Centers, June 1989, p. 40. )
The citations above are very misleading. For one thing, only
families with two children are counted. If a family has one child,
or three or more, it is not counted as a "traditional" family, even
if the family has an employed father and a full-time homemaker
mother. Not counted also are families in which the mother is
employed part- time, even if only during the summer, or is employed
full-time for only part of the year, or families with unemployed
fathers. For another thing, the term "families" is misused; the
data really count "households." This includes college students,
empty nesters with grown children, childless single adults, and
others who are in different categories entirely.
The latest data from the U.S. Labor Department and the Census
Bureau clearly show that two-thirds of the nation's young children
are being raised at home, most by full-time mothers or mothers who
are employed only part-time. (Marital and Family Characteristics of
the Labor Force from the March 1990 Current Population Survey, U.S.
Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 1990, p.
4.) Many women leave the labor force after the birth of a second
child. Some resume part-time or full-time jobs outside the home
when their children are older. More than one-third of mothers with
children aged 6 to 13 are outside the labor force; half of mothers
with children aged 6 to 17 either are outside the labor force or
are employed part- time. (Ibid.) Of mothers employed full-time,
most juggle child care responsibilities with their husbands, other
family members, or neighbors. (Ibid.)
Government programs for young children prevent social ills and
boost academic scores in later life.
The only longitudinal study to claim dramatic, long-term results
is of the Perry Preschool Program. Hundreds of other studies have
failed to duplicate the Perry findings.
A "crisis" in child care exists, so the federal government
should spend more on early childhood programs.
Care facilities and programs for young children are expanding
rapidly. Between 1960 and 1986, the capacity of formal group care
centers in America increased from 141,000 to 2.1 million, while the
number of centers grew from 4,400 to 39,929 in the same period.
Many churches now operate full-day or part-day care centers. There
even may be an oversupply of day care. National day care chains
such as Kinder- Care Learning Centers, Inc. report average vacancy
rates of 25 percent. (Rector, op. cit., p. 524.) The bulk of child
care is being done by parents, relatives, neighbors or by the more
than 1.6 million small, unlicensed day care providers. A 1988 Labor
Department survey finds "no evidence in support of the contention
that there is a general, national shortage of available care."
(Child Care: A Workforce Issue 10, Secretary's Task Force, U.S.
Department of Labor, 1988, cited by Rector in ibid.)
The Perry Preschool Experiment
The most-often cited evidence that early childhood education
works are studies of the Perry Preschool Program, a project
involving 123 black youths from poor families in Ypsilanti,
Michigan. Begun in 1962, the study explores long-term effects of
this high-quality early childhood education program on 58 children.
Another 65 children were used as a control group; they did not
attend preschool. The researchers began tracking the 123 youngsters
when they were three and four years old.
In 1984, when the subjects were between ages 19 and 24, studies
indicated long-term gains for the Perry pupils. According to the
High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, which both designed the
preschool curriculum and conducted the study, the Perry pupils had
half the rate of teen-age pregnancy, a much lower rate of arrests
and juvenile delinquency and were half as likely to depend on
welfare assistance as the pupils in the control group. (John R.
Berrueta-Clement, et al., Changed Lives. The Effects of the Perry
Preschool Program on Youths Through Age 19 (Ypsilanti, Michigan:
High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, 1984).)
A Perry benefit-cost analysis reviewed such factors as
savings in public expenditures on education, welfare and crime, and
added taxes paid by later-employed Perry participants. (W.S.
Barnett, The Perry Preschool Program and its Long-Term Effects: A
Benefit-Cost Analysis, High/Scope Early Childhood Policy Papers,
No. 2., Ypsilanti, Michigan, 1985. C.U. Weber, P.W. Foster and D.P.
Weikart, An Economic Analysis of the Perry Preschool Project
(Ypsilanti,Michigan:High/Scope, 1978). Both studies cited in
Haskins, op. cit., p 279.) Researchers concluded that "for each
dollar invested in the Perry Preschool Project, taxpayers receive a
return of $1.46 by the time participants are about 20 years of age.
Predicted net benefits over the lifetime of participants are even
more substantial." High/Scope researchers estimate that every
dollar spent on preschool education for children at risk saves
$5.73 in projected future costs to taxpayers. (Ibid.)
The Perry findings have been accepted widely as proof that
preschool programs, including Head Start, are good investments for
taxpayers and good for America's children. Calling the Perry
program "impressive," the House Ways and Means Committee's Haskins
says well- designed programs probably benefit some children, at
least in the short run. But he cautions: "It is unreasonable to
expect that extending preschool programs of the Head Start type to
more low-income children would produce benefits of the magnitude
found in the Perry project." (Haskins, op. cit., p. 280.) The
problem with the Perry study is that the Perry Preschool Program
was far from typical. The lessons learned from it thus have very
The Perry Preschool Program used a microscopic segment of
a narrowly defined population: poor, black children with IQs
between 61 and 81 in households in which a parent was home during
the day. (Zigler, op. cit., p. 30.) Yale psychologist Zigler warns
that Perry "was not only unrepresentative of children in general;
there is some doubt that it was representative of even the bulk of
economically disadvantaged children.... it is even problematic as
to whether the sample was representative of low-income black
children." Other backers of early childhood education also say
Perry's findings need perspective. Notes Head Start's Kresh: "When
they talk about a difference in something happening, they're
talking about 10 percent. In a sample that small, they're talking
about two or three kids." (Telephone interview, March 8, 1991.)
Perry preschoolers were in a highly controlled academic
environment and were instructed by highly professional educators.
Perry pupils' parents were heavily involved, and instructors
visited pupils' homes each week. Few programs duplicate such
conditions, and even those that are similar have not reproduced
Conflicts of Interest
Studies of the Perry Program were conducted by the same
people who designed and administered the project. High/Scope
researchers have a professional and economic stake in the program's
success, including the marketing of early childhood education
program material. Such conflicts of interest prevent High/Scope
researchers, even with pure intentions, from being objective
observers. In High Scope Resource magazine, High/Scope founder
David Weikart tells educators: "Well folks, hold on to your hats,
because your salaries are going up!... Next year, Head Start should
receive approximately $700 to $800 million more in appropriations
.... There are signs of increasing financial support for the early
childhood field, including federal day care spending bills that
provide 'wrap-around services' for Head Start, allowing Head Start
to provide child care beyond its current program hours." (David P.
Weikart, High Scope Resource, Fall 1990, p. 22.) Weikart calls for
more lobbying: "We must be out there as advocates in the public
schools across the states when they are passing their
appropriations bills." (Ibid.)
In the absence of hard scientific data, the federal government
should be very cautious before launching any programs. This is
particularly true, of course, for Washington's many-faceted
campaign to expand taxpayer-funded early childhood programs.
Warns psychologist Peery: "The public standard ought to be that
of prohibiting government from doing anything to children unless it
can be convincingly demonstrated that the children will
The answer to American cultural problems lies not in more
government programs to make up for family dysfunction but policies
that support families, particularly those with parents who care for
their own children.
To ensure that federal efforts help America's children:
** The Executive Order on the Family should be vigorously
enforced. Signed by Ronald Reagan in 1987, the order requires
federal agencies to take into account their policies' impact on
family formation, maintenance and general well-being" and to
question whether policies "strengthen or erode the stability of the
family and the marriage commitment" and "erode the authority and
rights of parents in the education, nurture and supervision of
their children." This Executive Order is widely ignored. The White
House Office of Policy Development submits an annual report on
agencies' compliance with the Executive Order on the Family and
recommendations to the President. It is time for George Bush to
** More research should be done on early education for
disadvantaged children to determine if there is a model that works
and can be replicated. Such efforts should target severely
disadvantaged children, follow methods for which there is evidence
of success, and use a controlled experiment format.
** Existing childhood education programs should be evaluated by
independent researchers. Bureaucracies cannot be expected to
analyze fairly the programs that they administer. Studies -- and
federal policies -- should take into account the impact of and
impact on families.
** Federal policies should be based on giving parents more
choices. This could be achieved through vouchers and tax credits
for child care and education. If schools fail to teach, it is not
because they have not enrolled children soon enough.
** Families should be strengthened, not supplanted by social
programs. The federal tax code should not punish two-parent
families with children. The personal exemption for dependents
should be increased substantially. The $600 exemption of 1948 would
be worth more than $6,000 today. Welfare programs should be
redesigned to encourage fatherhood, not father abandonment.
Taxpayers should not be subsidizing family break-up, and government
should intervene only in cases of extreme hardship or abuse.
Families are America's greatest cultural resource. Federal
policies, however well-intentioned, that hinder families or
supplant parental authority lead to more social problems, not
fewer. Parents who sacrifice by cutting work hours, by temporarily
leaving the work force, by rearranging schedules or downscaling
their life styles so that one parent can care for young children at
home suffer discrimination two ways: they are taxed to subsidize
services they do not want or use, and they are taxed to support
campaigns designed to justify those services.
Early childhood development programs must be better scrutinized
for their effects on children and families before the federal
government spends more taxpayers' money on them. Says former
Education Secretary William J. Bennett: "Government, obviously,
cannot fill a child's emotional needs. Nor can it fill his
spiritual or moral needs. Government is not a father or a mother."
(William J. Bennett, "Children and Culture in Modern America,"
remarks at University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, October
Children need their parents, and parents need more choice
in how they spend their time and money. The best way to empower
children is to empower their parents -- the people who care most
and know what is best for their children.
Robert H. Knight, former Senior Fellow, Cultural Policy
This is the fourth in a series of studies analyzing the
impact of federal policies on American culture and cultural
Heritage Foundation Research Assistant John M. Slye
contributed to this study.