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Education Reporter

Universal Pre-K Doesn't Pay
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Hillary Clinton has promised, if elected, to create a universal pre-Kindergarten program for 4-year-olds in all 50 states. Barack Obama's "Zero to Five" plan would promote not only universal pre-K but also government-subsidized child care for the youngest children. But a new report from the Alabama Policy Institute (API) questions the wisdom of universal pre-K, and criticizes in depth the arguments and data that proponents use to support it.

Does universal pre-K "raise productivity of society as a whole," as Sen. Obama claims? "Preschool is not the answer to the problem of low academic achievement or other societal problems," contends Krista Kafer, noted education consultant and author of the API report. "In fact, the solution is not to increase government intrusion into child rearing at all but rather to increase meaningful parental participation in the upbringing and education of children."

Advocates of a universal pre-K program proposed in California claimed the program would yield a return of $2.62 for every dollar spent. Economists Christopher F. Cardiff and Edward Stringham looked at the same program and predicted a loss of 25 to 30 cents for every dollar spent. The most optimistic cost-benefit predictions for universal pre-K, according to Kafer, rely on a few non-representative studies of preschool's benefits. The predictions generalize from the most at-risk students to the entire population, and entirely leave out the results of research that shows negative results from preschool participation. Furthermore, these predictions don't account for the economic costs of higher taxes or lottery schemes.

To analyze the costs and benefits of these programs accurately, preschool advocates should look at the full body of research. "Most research shows that preschool provides short-term cognitive and academic benefits that fade out after a few years," the API report reveals. "A few studies of small programs detect long-term benefits for highly-disadvantaged children." Advocates of universal pre-K base their optimism on data from a few small programs whose results have not been replicated.

Professor W. Steven Barnett of Rutgers University analyzed 36 early childhood studies that used reliable methods to compare children in the preschool and non-preschool groups. Although Barnett is himself a pre-K advocate, he found that many of pre-K's effects "declined over time and were negligible several years after children exited the programs." In the majority of the studies, preschool participation had no beneficial effect on children's grades, grade retention, graduation, teacher ratings, achievement, or participation in special education.

The Head Start Synthesis Project, which looked at 210 studies of the Head Start early childhood program for disadvantaged children, also failed to discover lasting benefits of pre-K, although Head Start students initially seemed better prepared for Kindergarten than children in the same socioeconomic groups who did not attend pre-K. "In the long run, cognitive and socio-emotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged children who did not attend Head Start," the analysis concluded.

A more recent study of Head Start, the Head Start Impact Study, found that even in the short term, gains for participating children were small. Four-year-old participants out-performed non-participants in just six out of 30 categories of social and cognitive development and family functioning, after controlling for all other factors that might affect the children's performance. The Head Start 4-year-olds could name two more letters than the others, had slightly better dental care and were slightly more likely to be read to at home. They were no better off than non-participants in any category relevant to vocabulary, math learning, oral comprehension, motivation to learn, or social or emotional skills.

A few analyses of the large, national Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) of the Kindergarten class of 1998-99 have found short-term academic benefits from pre-K. One such analysis found, however, that those benefits wore off by the spring of the first grade. This same study discovered that children who attended preschool did not behave as well as other children, an effect that lasted into at least 8th grade. Other large studies have confirmed that children who attend preschool are more likely to become aggressive or disobedient.

Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth made this impression on a research team from the C.D. Howe Institute in Canada: "We studied a wide range of measures of child well-being from anxiety and hyperactivity to social and motor skills. For almost every measure, we find that the increased use of childcare was associated with a decrease in their well-being relative to other children. For example, reported fighting and aggressive behavior increased substantially. Our results are consistent with evidence from the National Institute of Child Health and Development Early Childcare Research Network (2003), showing that the amount of time through the first 4.5 years of life that a child spends away from his or her mother is a predictor of assertiveness, disobedience, and aggression."

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