Commentary

Benefits of Preschool Don’t Last

By Darcy Ann Olsen
This article appeared in the Atlanta Journal on August 10, 1999.

In the Roald Dahl tale Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a golden ticket transforms a poor boy’s life into one of opportunity and hope, precisely what Al Gore says “universal preschool” can do for all disadvantaged children. But parents and policymakers should beware; for most children, preschool is more like fool’s gold than a golden ticket.

“Universal preschool” is the education establishment’s catchphrase for expanding the public school system to include all 3- and 4-year-olds, and Gore is making it a centerpiece of his presidential run. “If you elect me president, I will make high-quality preschool available to every child,” he announced earlier this month in Denver.

Universal preschool proponents like the vice president believe that preschool improves a child’s early school performance which, in turn, improves later school performance and produces a generation of more competent young adults. “Quality preschool can lead to higher IQs, higher reading and achievement levels, higher graduation rates and greater success in the workplace,” Gore recently told new graduates in Iowa. It sounds so reasonable. But the sad fact is that experience has proven otherwise.

Since the 1960s millions of children have been placed in private and public intervention programs. Benefits have been fleeting.

Consider Head Start. The nation’s largest federal preschool program has served more than 15 million children since 1965. But according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which assembled the most comprehensive synthesis of Head Start impact studies to date, Head Start has failed to have a lasting impact on child development. These studies show that by the time children enter second grade, any short-term cognitive, social and emotional gains experienced by Head Start children have completely vanished. Head Start children’s achievement test scores, IQ scores, achievement motivation scores, self-esteem and social behavior scores are no better than those of their demographically comparable non-Head Start peers. A more recent study by the General Accounting Office confirmed the HHS finding. There is no evidence that Head Start provides lasting benefits.

Most proponents of Head Start say they just need a little more research, more time, and — not surprisingly — more money. But 33 years, $35 billion, and 15 million children have passed through the Head Start schoolyard gates since 1965. That’s more than enough time and resources to create a successful program, if that were possible. Nor is Head Start unique. Forty years of results from similar intervention programs show that while short-term benefits are possible, lasting gains are elusive.

As a group, many professional educators have resisted coming to terms with the mounting evidence that the “promise” of preschool is an empty one. But a few have been honest enough to consider the clear implications of decades of experience and research. Preschool enthusiasts would be wise to consider the views of one of the most outstanding scholars in the child development field: Edward Zigler, co-founder of Head Start and director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. Zigler says candidly, “We simply cannot inoculate children in one year against the ravages of a life of deprivation.” As far back as 1987, when universal preschool was on the political scene, he noted, “This is not the first time universal preschool education has been proposed… . Then, as now, the arguments in favor of preschool education were that it would reduce school failure, lower dropout rates, increase test scores, and produce a generation of more competent high school graduates… . Preschool education will achieve none of these results.”

Is there any reason to believe that public preschool would provide children with more lasting benefits than model programs of the past? Not likely. Let’s face it, K-12 public schools are not exactly bastions of excellence. The establishment’s failings are well known. Dropout rates exceed 50 percent in some cities, achievement scores rank abysmally against international peers, and all the while spending is increasing. It takes a great leap of faith to believe public preschools would somehow buck this trend.

Not surprisingly, few parents are clamoring for public preschool. In fact, 96 percent of parents report being satisfied with their child care arrangements, including preschool, according to the nation’s most comprehensive child care survey conducted under the Department of Health and Human Services. That is hardly a people’s mandate for new government preschools.

Meanwhile, a national grassroots education reform movement has swept through two-thirds of the states, offering vouchers, tax credits, charter schools and multi-million dollar private scholarship funds. Parents are working to loosen the government’s grip on K-12 education, even as the vice president is seeking to extend that hold to preschoolers.

Given that most recent effective education reforms have involved decentralization and greater parental involvement — whether through public charter schools, school choice or homeschooling — it is hard to argue that the answer to poor school performance is putting kids into troubled public schools two years sooner.

Imagine how cruel it would have been in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory if Charlie’s ticket had turned out to be a hoax; how sad to have raised his expectations to then turn him away from the factory gate. But that’s just a story, and Charlie is fictitious. The movement for universal preschool is real, and preschool policies affect millions of young children every day. Although the Vice President means well, he’s no Willy Wonka. And he’s not doing children any favors by selling them universal preschool as a golden ticket.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy.