Universal Pre-K: No Substitute for a Healthy, Stable Childhood

November 12, 2013

The movement to provide universal pre-K to our nation's children thought it got a big boost last month when the New York Times published a front page article about a study showing a disturbingly large vocabulary gap between low- and high-income 2 year olds. In fact, the article was a perfect reflection of what might be called the preschool fairytale, says Kay S. Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

  • Researchers have been following preschool kids for decades, and while they've found a few high quality programs that have had some benefits, they've discovered nothing to suggest that pre-K can solve the inequality problem.
  • On the contrary: their results inadvertently show just how hard it is to for the state to compensate for family breakdown.
  • Family researchers find that contemporary American poverty often involves chaotic homes where children go through many "transitions": disappearing fathers, new stepparents (who themselves frequently leave for other relationships), and stepsiblings and step-grandparents who are just passing through.
  • Under these circumstances parents are probably more preoccupied with picking up the pieces of their own lives than with enriching their children's vocabulary.
  • It should surprise no one to hear that the more transitions children, particularly boys, experience, the worse their educational outcomes.

What the research really suggests, then, is that it is parents, not formal education, that make the difference for young children's readiness for school and success once they get there.  Preschool optimists seem to believe that programs can either compensate for, or change, families who are not or cannot be fully invested in their children's development and education.  At this point, their credence far outruns the evidence.

Source: Kay Hymowitz, "Universal Pre-K Won't Solve Vocabulary Gap (Or Inequality)," Time Magazine, October 25, 2013.

 

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