Al and the Education Factory

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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 thatpreschool improves a child's early school performance which, in turn,improves later school performance and produces a generation of morecompetent young adults. "Quality preschool can lead to higher IQs, higherreading and achievement levels, higher graduation rates and greater successin the workplace," Gore recently told new graduates in Iowa. It sounds soreasonable. But the sad fact is that experience has proven otherwise.

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

Consider Head Start. The nation's largest federal preschool program hasserved more than 15 million children since 1965. But according to theDepartment of Health and Human Services, which assembled the mostcomprehensive synthesis of Head Start impact studies to date, Head Start hasfailed to have a lasting impact on child development. These studies showthat by the time children enter second grade, any short-term cognitive,social and emotional gains experienced by Head Start children havecompletely vanished. Head Start children's achievement test scores, IQscores, achievement motivation scores, self-esteem and social behaviorscores are no better than those of their demographically comparable non-HeadStart peers. A more recent study by the General Accounting Office confirmedthe HHS finding. There is no evidence that Head Start provides lastingbenefits.

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 gatessince 1965. That's more than enough time and resources to create asuccessful program, if that were possible. Nor is Head Start unique. Fortyyears of results from similar intervention programs show that whileshort-term benefits are possible, lasting gains are elusive.

As a group, many professional educators have resisted coming to terms withthe mounting evidence that the "promise" of preschool is an empty one. Buta few have been honest enough to consider the clear implications of decadesof experience and research. Preschool enthusiasts would be wise to considerthe views of one of the most outstanding scholars in the child developmentfield: Edward Zigler, co-founder of Head Start and director of the BushCenter in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. Ziglersays candidly, "We simply cannot inoculate children in one year against theravages of a life of deprivation." As far back as 1987, when universalpreschool was on the political scene, he noted, "This is not the first timeuniversal preschool education has been proposed. . . . Then, as now, thearguments in favor of preschool education were that it would reduce schoolfailure, lower dropout rates, increase test scores, and produce a generationof more competent high school graduates. . . . Preschool education willachieve none of these results."

Is there any reason to believe that public preschool would provide childrenwith 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 50percent in some cities, achievement scores rank abysmally againstinternational peers, and all the while spending is increasing. It takes agreat 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 carearrangements, including preschool, according to the nation's mostcomprehensive child care survey conducted under the Department of Health andHuman Services. That is hardly a people's mandate for new governmentpreschools.

Meanwhile, a national grassroots education reform movement has swept throughtwo-thirds of the states, offering vouchers, tax credits, charter schoolsand multi-million dollar private scholarship funds. Parents are working toloosen the government's grip on K-12 education, even as the vice presidentis seeking to extend that hold to preschoolers.

Given that most recent effective education reforms have involveddecentralization and greater parental involvement -- whether through publiccharter schools, school choice or homeschooling -- it is hard to argue thatthe answer to poor school performance is putting kids into troubled publicschools 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.