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Education Reporter

Research Disputes Benefits of Early Education
Assessing Proposals for Preschool and Kindergarten:
Essential Information for Parents, Taxpayers, and Policymakers

by Darcy Olsen, with research assistance from Jennifer Martin

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Arizona's move toward more government preschool and kindergarten programs is not unprecedented. In France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, there is nearly universal enrollment of three-and four-year-olds in center-based institutions. A few states across the country have adopted similar systems. Georgia created the first statewide universal preschool program for four-year-olds in 1993, and Oklahoma, New York, and West Virginia have moved in a similar direction. In 2002, Florida voters adopted a constitutional amendment requiring the state to provide free preschool for every four-year-old child.

Conservative estimates show that Arizona currently spends more than $410 million annually on various day care and early education programs, including Head Start, preschool, and kindergarten. This estimate does not include funds for tribal and migrant worker programs or multiple funding streams used by school districts to fund all-day kindergarten. As policymakers consider early education proposals, we have the opportunity to examine research on preschool and kindergarten, review experience and findings from domestic programs, and look to international data.

We find strong evidence that the widespread adoption of preschool and full-day kindergarten is unlikely to improve student achievement. For nearly 50 years, local, state, and federal governments and diverse private sources have spent billions of dollars funding early education programs. Some early interventions have had meaningful short-term effects on disadvantaged students' grade-level retention and special education placement. However, the effects of early interventions routinely disappear after children leave the programs. The phenomenon known as "fade out" is important because it means that early schooling may be immaterial to a child's later school performance, or that the current school system as structured is unable to sustain those early gains.

For mainstream children, there is little evidence to support the contention that formal preschool and kindergarten are necessary for school achievement or more advantageous than learning in a traditional setting, and there is some evidence that day care and preschool can be detrimental.

From 1965 to the present day, the United States has undergone a sea change in formal early education. Preschool and kindergarten, which were rarely used, are now the norm. Despite increased enrollment in formal early education programs, student achievement has shown little to no improvement. To the degree that international test data are instructive, America's decentralized early education system is outperforming the European model and excels in equipping students for superior achievement in the elementary years.

Implicit in Governor Napolitano's plan is the presumption that the state should take more responsibility for educating young children. A large majority of "child advocates" envision something similar, with almost seven of 10 saying government policy should move toward a universal, national system similar to those of many European countries. Most parents feel otherwise. More than 70% of parents with young children say it is their responsibility to pay the costs of caring for their children, and only one in four would move toward a universal system paid for by the government. Also, a majority of low-income parents (those earning no more than $25,000 per year) believes that bearing the cost is their responsibility and not society's. The public opinion research organization, Public Agenda, reports, "At the most basic level, parents of young children believe that having a full-time parental presence at home is what's best for very young children, and it is what most would prefer for their own family."

The Governor attempts to address parents' concerns by saying participation in the programs will be voluntary. Yet it is difficult to square that rhetoric with a plan intended to make early education "a lockstep component of public schooling."

Today, all 50 states have compulsory attendance laws, applying generally to children between the ages of five and 18, and many policymakers have been forthright in calling for extending compulsory education to preschoolers.

For example, in 2001, District of Columbia councilman Kevin Chavous proposed the "Compulsory School Attendance Amendment Act" to make school compulsory for every preschool-aged child in the nation's capital. The Honorable Zell Miller, former U.S. senator and Georgia governor, has also expressed a preference for mandatory enrollment, saying, "If I had a choice of pre-K or 12th grade being mandatory, I'd take pre-K in a second." For many people who are convinced that preschool is a necessity, mandatory attendance becomes the next logical step. As one prominent Vermont legislator explained when he proposed a study on the cost of compulsory preschool for three-and four-year-olds, compulsion is the only way to guarantee that children have an equal opportunity for education.

Fundamentally, the preschool and kindergarten debate is not about the effectiveness or expense of the programs. At heart is the question of in whose hands the responsibility for young children should rest. On that question, plans to entrench the state further into early education cannot be squared with a free society that cherishes the primacy of the family over the state.

What Do We Know?
Understanding the Research 
Policymakers are interested in early education for several reasons. Some proponents see preschool and kindergarten as a politically palatable way to subsidize day care. The primary argument made by Arizona policymakers, including governor Janet Napolitano, state superintendent of public instruction Tom Horne, and the State School Readiness Board, is that more early learning will provide the experiences and environment necessary to promote the healthy development of children, leading to subsequent school achievement. For example,

  • State superintendent of public instruction Tom Horne writes, "Studies show that a dollar spent on academically oriented all-day kindergarten can equal more than $7 or $8 spent in later grades in producing the same academic progress."

  • Governor Janet Napolitano writes, "Extensive research shows that full-day kindergarten improves students' reading, writing and math skills, and it contributes to lower dropout rates."

  • The State School Readiness Board writes, "Full day kindergarten can lower grade retention, improve language and math skills, lead to higher achievement test scores in eighth grade, and improve attendance and social skills."

Unfortunately, most of the research informing those statements is limited in its applicability to mainstream students and plagued by methodological shortcomings, including small sample size, high attrition rates, infrequent random selection, and infrequent use of comparison groups. Some of the research has been wholly discredited.

For instance, Superintendent Horne suggests that one dollar invested in full-day kindergarten can save seven dollars in later years. Although he does not specify, this figure appears to be based on a flawed cost-benefit analysis from one study of 123 children conducted from 1962-1965, which independent peer reviewers found to be compromised by significant sampling and methodological errors. It also lacks the ability to inform the preschool discussion for mainstream children because it included only children at risk of "retarded intellectual functioning." Further undermining confidence in the results is the fact that its findings have never been replicated.

Taken as a whole, a review of the research shows that some early interventions have had meaningful short-term effects on disadvantaged students' cognitive ability, grade-level retention, and special education placement. However, most research also indicates that the effects of early interventions disappear after children leave the programs.

This finding helps explain why two researchers can look at the same study and reach different conclusions: the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) studies, for instance, which have received significant press coverage and are discussed later in detail, show a slight advantage for full-day kindergartners over half-day kindergartners as measured at the end of the kindergarten year. Critically, however, they show no differences in academic achievement between the two groups by the end of third grade.

The phenomenon known as "fade out" is important to discussions of preschool and kindergarten because it means that early schooling may not measurably affect a child's later academic performance. However, if fade out occurs, not because programs are ineffective, but because the schools children later attend are unable to maintain those gains, then it is reasonable to conclude that preschool and kindergarten will not result in lasting gains unless or until elementary and secondary schools are significantly improved. Either conclusion points invariably to the need for reform within the current school system.

As will be discussed later, the few instances in which research has shown the potential of early intervention for improving children's long-term outcomes, the research has been conducted on severely disadvantaged children only in intense settings involving a level of intervention far different from either preschool or kindergarten. For instance, in the widely cited Abecedarian program, children were placed in the program as infants, at the average age of just over four months old. . . . The studies that have been conducted on mainstream children generally do not show benefits from early education programs. According to David Weikart, past president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation responsible for Perry Preschool, "For middle-class youngsters with a good economic basis, most programs are not able to show much in the way of difference."

A significant body of research shows that formal early education can be detrimental to mainstream children. David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University and author of numerous books on cognitive and social development in children and adolescents, explains:

The image of child competence introduced in the 1960s was intended to remedy some of the social inequalities visited upon low-income children. But the publicity given the arguments of child competence was read and heard by educators and middle-class parents as well . . . For this reason it was uncritically appropriated for middle-class children by parents and educators. While the image of childhood competence has served a useful function for low-income children and children with special needs, it has become the rationale for the miseducation of middle-class children. . . .

Elkind explains that children who receive academic instruction too early — generally before age six or seven — are often put at risk for no apparent gain. By attempting to teach the wrong things at the wrong time, early instruction can permanently damage a child's self-esteem, reduce a child's natural eagerness to learn, and block a child's natural gifts and talents. He concludes,

There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits, and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm . . . If we do not wake up to the potential danger of these harmful practices, we may do serious damage to a large segment of the next generation. . . .

Darcy Olsen is President and CEO of the Goldwater Institute. The full report (POLICY report, Goldwater Institute, No. 201, Feb. 8, 2005) is available with footnotes at: http://www.goldwaterinstitute.org/pdf/materials/542.pdf

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