Universal Preschool Not Worth the Cost

January 24, 2014

President Obama called for "Preschool for All" in his 2013 State of the Union address, calling for $75 billion in funding over the next decade for such an initiative. But before the federal government embarks upon another educational spending program, a look at the disappointing results of Head Start -- the current federal preschool program -- should give one pause, say David J. Armor and Sonia Sousa, professors at George Mason University.

  • Head Start was started in 1965.
  • Enrollment in 2011 reached 1,000,000 students with $7.6 billion in funding.
  • The intent of the program was to help low-income children catch up with middle-class children so that the two could be on the same footing in kindergarten.
  • Head Start operates separately from local school districts and is usually administered by county- or city-level agencies.
  • Classes are small, with low child-to-staff ratios.

A study comparing Head Start students with those outside of the program had disappointing results:

  • Head Start children did see positive effects compared to children who had no preschool.
  • However, those effects were limited to the one year spent in Head Start and did not extend to kindergarten or first grade.
  • Moreover, the group of three year olds that did not participate in any preschool program actually had higher cognitive scores than the three year olds in Head Start.
  • Many cite the quality of Head Start's curriculum as an explanation for why the program has failed. However, the study found no significant link between the quality of the Head Start program and children's cognitive and social outcomes.

Other preschool programs have also demonstrated a similar lack of positive long-term effects. As all of this evidence indicates that preschool is not effective in benefiting children's long-term cognitive or emotional outcomes, spending another $75 billion on a universal preschool program is not a smart way to spend money.

If the president is interested in a kindergarten program for the disadvantaged, a portion of Head Start funding should be allocated to a national demonstration project -- with a rigorous evaluation system -- that institutes pre-kindergarten programs in a select group of cities. Only when the government can provide evidence that a program is actually going to produce valuable long-term results should more money be spent on preschool education.

Source: David J. Armor and Sonia Sousa, "The Dubious Promise of Universal Preschool," National Affairs, Winter 2014.

 

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