Beware the preschool bandwagon

Common sense tells you the world is flat. Science says otherwise, of course, but it was only after two centuries and a whole lot of scientists that the world's leaders were finally convinced. Truth is sometimes counterintuitive. We’d like to think we're more enlightened in 2008, but many of our leaders today are just as likely to dismiss scientific evidence as those six centuries ago. Consider the case for government preschool programs. Such programs seem to be the solution to the problem of low academic achievement among poor children. Since these kids typically enter school behind their more advantaged peers, it seems reasonable to enroll them in school a year or two earlier to give them a head start. Unfortunately, what seems to be a perfectly sensible solution is not one at all.

The vast majority of research over the past four decades shows that the benefits children gain from preschool fade out by the end of elementary school. Taxpayers are spending $6.8 billion a year on the federal Head Start program, more than $3 billion on state-based prekindergarten programs, and billions more on various other federal daycare programs, subsidies and tax credits on the false premise that children are somehow benefiting.

In Colorado, taxpayers spend $29 million a year on state preschool programs. Denver voters passed a sales tax in 2006 to subsidize preschool. According to a Denver Post article by Jeremy P. Meyer, 3,650 students receive subsidies. James Mejia, director of the Denver Preschool Program, told Meyer that “Studies show that for every dollar you spend on early childhood education, you will get back $10 to $12 in services you would otherwise be spending on social services, incarceration, remediation.”

Sounds great, but upon closer examination, this just isn't true. The cost-benefit analyses routinely bandied about by advocates come up short. The analysis is laregely based on exaggerated claims from a tiny subset of studies misrepresented as the whole. When the vast majority of research is considered, it becomes clear that preschool does not reap the amazing benefits touted by advocates.

Four decades of legitimate research actually shows that the majority of low-income children experience only short-term positive impacts and there is little long-term impact from preschool participation. Research also shows that preschool participation has no positive impact on children from middle or high income families, another ill-supported claim by advocates. Worse, preschool can have negative effects. Researchers at the National Institutes for Health and various universities have found adverse effects on children’s behavior resulting from early childhood education programs.

So why don’t we ever hear about this research? Why is it kept buried?

In public policy, the real question is not why but who, as in who benefits? That’s the billion dollar question. When government preschool programs are established, public and private preschools acquire taxpayer funding. Advocacy groups reap millions of dollars from foundation donors to continue expanding programs. Politicians feel good about “doing something” to help kids. Families like free or subsidized day care that supposedly helps their children. And the media gets to do puff pieces. Everyone wins, except perhaps the heretic who suggests otherwise. That isn’t to say those who benefit don’t sincerely believe the claims. I’m sure they do.

Common sense and conscience can be fooled. When money and reputations are on the line, it can take centuries to bring the truth to light.

Krista Kafer is a Denver-based education consultant, frequent cohost on Backbone Radio, and regular columnist for Face the, from which this is reprinted by permission.