Debunking the preschool myth

A wise man once said, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. That wisdm keeps many a smart person away from cheap Rolexes, pyramid schemes and any solicitation stamped “you might be a winner.” Unfortunately that same con-wary person might be taken in by a lobbyist or politician with a slick pitch promising great prosperity for a pittance. Right now, advocacy organizations are selling one such empty promise. They say that for every dollar spent by taxpayers on preschool, society will reap $7 in benefits such as lower special-education costs, grade retention and dropout rates, welfare usage, and crime and higher college enrollment and employment at high paying jobs.

Sound too good to be true? It is. The proposed expansion of tax-funded government preschool programs pushed by these organizations will cost taxpayers millions of dollars but generate few of promised benefits.

How can this be? Advocates seem to back up their claims with cost-benefit analyses and university research. These promotional materials might as well be stamped “you might be a winner” because their claims exaggerate and misrepresent the full body of research.

Preschool does not reap the extraordinary benefits touted by advocates. The majority of research over the past three decades shows that preschool improves the academic achievement of low-income children only in the short-term. The benefits fade out after a few years.

As for middle-class children, there is no positive impact. There are, however, potential negative impacts; early childhood education can have an adverse effect on children’s behavior and this effect can persist even after the short-term cognitive benefits have faded away.

Advocates ignore these findings in favor of a few studies conducted decades ago of yet-to-be-replicated programs that show long-term impacts for some participants. Their sales pitch omits the larger body of research including multiple studies on the nation’s largest, longest running preschool experiment, Head Start. Study after study shows that the $6.7 billion a year program produces short-term impacts that fade out. In other words, the program has no long-term impact. Likewise, state preschool programs consume over $3 billion a year without evidence of long-term impact.

Put simply, preschool may make adults feel good – be they politicians or parents – but it has little positive impact for children (and can even hurt their social development).

Want to see the evidence for yourself? Check out a paper I did recently for the Alabama Policy Council that examines over 50 studies of the impact of preschool on children.