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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reports Find Universal Preschool Benefit 'Substantially Overstated'

Universal preschool has been pushed in the South Dakota legislature for at least a couple of years now. Although it has been rebuffed in each of the last two legislative sessions, proponents are sure to try again in 2009 despite the testimony of people like Stanford professor Erik Hanushek that there's no bang for the buck.

As Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell point out in their Wall Street Journal column today, universal preschool is also high on Barack Obama's agenda with his $10 billion "Zero-to-Five" program. Several Democrat governors across the country are also eager to implement universal pre-k.

Despite this agenda to move children farther away from their parents and more into the hands of state re-education centers under the auspices of "greater academic performance," the evidence doesn't support this contention.

From the WSJ piece:

In the last half-century, U.S. preschool attendance has gone up to nearly 70% from 16%. But fourth-grade reading, science, and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) -- the nation's report card -- have remained virtually stagnant since the early 1970s.

Education spending has exploded during this time as well and yet...no bang for the buck.

The piece also points out that according to an Education Week analysis in 2006, Oklahoma actually saw decreased academic performance after embracing preschool. There was zero improvement in Georgia and Tennessee.

The piece also points out that the 40-year-old Headstart program, which was supposed to be a magic bullet, hasn't really helped. Any initial gains disappear within a few school years.

On the contrary, there is a growing body of evidence that preschool may actually be harmful to children.

A 2005 analysis by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that kindergartners with 15 or more hours of preschool every week were less motivated and more aggressive in class. Likewise, Canada's C.D. Howe Institute found a higher incidence of anxiety, hyperactivity and poor social skills among kids in Quebec after universal preschool.

Other reports have cited increased aggressive behavior inclusing biting, throwing knives and cursing at staff.

Based on the research, the only preschool programs that seem to do any good at all are those specifically targeted at severely disadvantaged children, i.e. those coming from homes where the parents are drug addicts or are very neglectful--in which case, it may be more appropriate to remove the children from such a bad home.

show that parental involvement is the single most powerful aid to academic excellence. A study by the Educational Testing Service released last year found:
The E.T.S. researchers took four variables that are beyond the control of schools: The percentage of children living with one parent; the percentage of eighth graders absent from school at least three times a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger whose parents read to them daily, and the percentage of eighth graders who watch five or more hours of TV a day. Using just those four variables, the researchers were able to predict each state’s results on the federal eighth-grade reading test with impressive accuracy.

“Together, these four factors account for about two-thirds of the large differences among states,” the report said. In other words, the states that had the lowest test scores tended to be those that had the highest percentages of children from single-parent families, eighth graders watching lots of TV and eighth graders absent a lot, and the lowest percentages of young children being read to regularly, regardless of what was going on in their schools.
A report entitled "Does Prekindergarten Improve School Preparation and Performance?" found that pre-k has few lasting positive effects on normal children, but persisting adverse effects on their behavior. By spring of the first grade, the academic gains had dissipated. Results were greater for disadvantaged children.

Another report entitled “Prekindergarteners Left Behind: Expulsion Rates in State Prekindergarten Systems” examines behavioral problems resulting in an expulsion rate triple that of K-12 students.

A report entitled "How Sound an Investment?" found the professed return on investment of pre-k programs "substantially overstated."

Even economist James J. Heckman, who Obama cites as support for his "Zero to Five" plan, says
"It is foolish to try to substitute for what the middle-class and upper-middle-class parents are already doing. ... I think that the evidence suggests that we can target pretty well, and we can certainly deal with the major problems, by starting first with children from disadvantaged families."

At best, preschool programs may help disadvantaged children. For the rest, there seems to be no lasting academic benefit...and a lasting behavioral problem.

Perhaps any money spent would be better used to strengthen families and promote responsibility instead of taking children out of the home more.


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