The Preschool Picture

Universal preschool will be a boon for middle-class parents. How it will help poor kids catch up is not so obvious.

The campaign for universal preschool education in the United States has gained great momentum. Precisely as strategists intended, many Americans have come to believe that pre-kindergarten is a good and necessary thing for government to provide, even that not providing it will cruelly deprive our youngest residents of their birthrights, blight their educational futures, and dim their life prospects.

Yet a troubling contradiction bordering on dishonesty casts a shadow over today’s mighty push for universal pre-K education in America (see “Preschool Puzzle,” forum, Fall 2008).

The principal intellectual and moral argument that advocates make—and for which I have considerable sympathy—is similar to that of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) backers: giving needy kids a boost up the ladder of educational and later-life success by narrowing the achievement gaps that now trap too many of them on the lower rungs. Serious pursuit of that objective would entail intensive, educationally sophisticated programs, starting early in a child’s life, perhaps even before birth, and enlisting and assisting the child’s parents from day one.

Yet the programmatic and political strategy embraced by today’s pre-K advocates is altogether different. They seek to furnish relatively skimpy preschool services to all 4 million of our nation’s four-year-olds (and then, of course, all 4 million three-year-olds), preferably under the aegis of the public schools.

Either this discordant plan is a front for public school expansionism, bent on adding another grade or two to its current thirteen, and adding the staff (and dues-paying union members) that would accompany such growth, or it’s a cynical calculation: only by appealing to the middle-class desire for taxpayers to underwrite the routine child-care needs of working parents will any movement occur on the pre-K front, and the heck with the truly disadvantaged youngsters who need more than that strategy will yield. On balance, it appears to me, the interests of poor kids are being subordinated to the politics of getting something enacted. And the unabashed reasoning behind this strategy is that nothing will be done if it’s only for the poor. That’s nonsense. America is awash in enormous, well-funded programs that target the poor. Medicaid and Pell Grants leap instantly to mind. And in the early-childhood field, of course, there is already Head Start—spending more per pupil than any universal pre-K program is likely to cost—as well as chunks of the big Title I program that pay for pre-K education.
Surely the advocates know this. Why, then, do they deny it?

Growing Interest

Pre-kindergarten is one of the hottest topics in American education in 2009. Twice during the presidential-campaign debates, Barack Obama termed early-childhood education one of his highest priorities, and even before serious planning got under way for an antirecession “stimulus” package, he had pledged to this priority an additional $10 billion in annual federal funding. Education secretary Arne Duncan is a strong booster of pre-K education, and Congress is busy on this front, too. The whopping economic-stimulus package enacted in February included $2.1 billion more for Head Start and $2 billion more for child care, plus additional funding for disabled preschoolers and some $54 billion in assistance to state and local education budgets.


In state capitals, meanwhile, many governors have embraced preschool with something like the fervor they brought to K—12 education reform during the late 20th century. Pre-K and kindergarten-expansion proposals topped their priorities in myriad “state of the state” messages in 2008. Even as the economy slowed and budgets tightened, state-funded pre-K programs added more than 100,000 youngsters, meaning that about one in four four-year-olds now takes part in such programs.

Preschool also looms large for some prominent education analysts who doubt that K—12 schooling alone can accomplish much gap closing due to other powerful forces in the lives of children and families. In this view, school-centric initiatives such as NCLB are destined to fail because they don’t start early enough and don’t address those outside forces. Instead, they urge a “broader, bolder” approach that includes sharply increased investment in “developmentally appropriate and high-quality early childhood, preschool, and kindergarten education.”

This widening enthusiasm for universal or near-universal pre-K education is no accident. In the background, plenty of strings are being tugged and dollars spent, particularly by the $6 billion Pew Charitable Trusts, which has made universal pre-kindergarten one of its top priorities, investing $50 million in this effort as of 2006. Many other foundations and individual philanthropists are similarly engaged. As a result, a half dozen energized, high-profile national groups now fill cyberspace, policymakers’ in-boxes, and committee witness lists. Many of them also have affiliates advocating away in state capitals.

Though some cracks have recently appeared in these widely held positions, as a handful of partisans now favor intensive programs targeted at a relatively small group of acutely disadvantaged children, most of the advocacy effort is still directed toward universality: pre-kindergarten for every American four-year-old.

Who Needs It?
Many youngsters arrive in kindergarten with learning deficits. For some, these deficits are mild and can be dealt with by competent early-grade teachers. For others, the shortfalls are already so severe that these hapless tykes are gravely unprepared to flourish in today’s more “academic” kindergartens. This means that—barring some change or miracle—those children won’t likely be ready to prosper in 1st or 2nd grade and beyond. They typically bring their learning deficits from disorganized homes in troubled neighborhoods, places where ill-prepared and overstretched adults, very often young single moms with minimal education of their own, offer babies and toddlers too little true conversation, intellectual stimulation, and cognitive growth.

Large bodies of research make clear that whether children successfully acquire literacy skills in the early grades of school correlates strongly with a half dozen “precursor” skills that are normally picked up between birth and age five, skills such as knowing the letters of the alphabet and their sounds, and being able to write those letters—and one’s own name.

Middle-class kids with attentive, educated parents, grandparents, and other adults in their lives tend to acquire these (and many other) skills through the course of conventional child rearing. But what about youngsters whose lives lack a sufficient number of such adults? The evidence indicates that they number about 10 percent, maybe 15 to 20 percent, of all children.

There’s also evidence, though much debated, that ultra-intensive pre-K programs can remedy the deficits. But the programs commonly cited in this regard—notably Michigan’s Perry Preschool and North Carolina’s Abecedarian Project—turn out to be truly exceptional. These were richly financed, highly sophisticated, multifaceted interventions in the lives of extremely disadvantaged youngsters and their families, and they took place decades ago. The University of Maryland’s Douglas Besharov calls them “hothouse programs,” noting that they were “run by top-notch specialists,…served fewer than 200 children, cost at least $15,000 per child per year in today’s dollars, often involved multiple years of services, had well-trained teachers, and instructed parents on effective child-rearing. Significantly, the children they served had low IQs or had parents with low IQs.”

Some studies have found that these programs had positive impacts on their participants that endured into adulthood, such as reducing the likelihood of incarceration. That’s obviously encouraging, albeit somewhat remote from school readiness. But the long-term effects also turned out to be uneven and mostly small. Besharov and his colleagues note, for example, that the Abecedarian Project “achieved positive and lasting gains on a wide range of cognitive and school-related outcomes, including IQ, reading, and mathematics achievement scores.” Yet “these gains became ambiguous as time went on” and “did not lead to many improved outcomes in adulthood…with, for example, no statistically significant differences in high school graduation rates, employment, or criminal activity.”

It’s almost impossible to picture the conditions, circumstances, and cost structures of these boutique programs being replicated on a large scale. And it’s naive to suppose that their intensive features would be found in the sort of universal program that pre-K advocates are bent on creating.

As for more-typical pre-K programs, a number of studies find that they produce desirable short-term effects, especially for disadvantaged youngsters. As Berkeley sociologist Bruce Fuller says,

The short-term effects of preschooling…on poor children’s cognitive growth are well established.…The general effect size—even for poor children—ranges from one-fifth to one-third of a standard deviation.… Significant benefits [also] accrue to children from middle-class households, but at considerably lower levels of magnitude.

But the big issue with pre-K education is whether the gains and gap reductions last. Evidence is limited because the longitudinal studies needed to answer such questions are costly, complex, and obviously time-consuming. But the available evidence is profoundly discouraging. Most of the gains that can be found upon entry into school ebb over time, and the differences attributable to various kinds of programs tend to wash out, too. In fact, effects that may appear significant at the conclusion of the program itself frequently fade to the vanishing point by the time youngsters have progressed as far as 3rd grade. That fadeaway doubtless has more to do with what happens to students in the K—12 system—and the continuing malignant influences in the outside lives of many youngsters—than with preschool programs themselves. But it also suggests that universalizing the preschool experience is not the way to achieve lasting gap reduction. Indeed, as Fuller and others have noted, if the policy goal is to narrow gaps between haves and have-nots, why would the same programmatic intervention be administered to everybody?

Confusion Reigns
It’s no wonder the evidence about the effects of preschool is confused and ambiguous, given the shaky, antiquated condition of standards and quality criteria in this field. While the K—12 policy world now mostly equates quality with academic outcomes, the pre-K world remains fixated on inputs like spending levels, staffing ratios, and college degrees. Of the three most widely used measures of quality in the field of early education—the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS), the standards of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and those of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)—none pays much heed to whether the “graduates” of preschool programs are ready for academic success in kindergarten and beyond.

The situation is hard to rectify because assessment in this domain is underdeveloped and heavily disputed and because many early-childhood educators care more about noncognitive elements of child development. To be sure, particularly when dealing with small children, adults must attend to “the whole child” and to varied developmental needs. Still, in today’s pre-K policy context, what matters most is a program’s effectiveness in imparting essential school-readiness skills to its young participants, principally in the cognitive domain. Key attributes of such programs include clear goals, accurate assessments, and a willingness to be judged by outcomes as well as by the high-quality classroom interactions most apt to yield them. But that isn’t how most early-childhood educators prefer to view their work, much less to be evaluated on their performance.

The Problem of Head Start
Nowhere is resistance to structured, curriculum-based, standards-and-assessment-driven early education clearer than in the big, iconic, federal early-childhood program known as Head Start, a legacy of Lyndon Johnson’s mid-1960s declaration of war on poverty.

In a letter to Congress in February 1965, LBJ characterized his proposal as “a school readiness program for 100,000 children about to enter kindergarten.” Within a few years, however, studies began to suggest that the program was not, in fact, preparing children very well for regular school. In 1969, the Westinghouse Learning Corporation and Ohio University published the first major evaluation and concluded that while Head Start did commendable things for needy children by way of socialization and health care, its impact on cognition was nil once those youngsters reached the primary grades.

This finding launched a four-decades-long battle over how to judge Head Start’s effectiveness and whether it should even be regarded as an education program. Study after study—including comprehensive federal reviews in 1985 and 2005—showed time and again that the impacts on cognition were feeble and transitory. In response, Head Start’s defenders and boosters, as well as the burgeoning and organized groups of program operators and staffers, denied ever more vociferously that the program is primarily about school readiness—and insisted that it ought not be appraised as such.

Concerned that Head Start participants benefited from little gap narrowing despite the expenditure of nearly $10,000 in federal funds on each of them, Health and Human Services (HHS) assistant secretary Wade Horn mounted an ambitious effort in 2003 to beef up the program’s preschool elements and to evaluate its providers on the basis of their cognitive outcomes. That caused the National Head Start Association to go wild.

Much argument and rival testimony followed. The program’s old guard won, its familiar assumptions were reinforced, and the wind went out of the reformers’ sails. Although the most recent Head Start reauthorization pays lip service to the program’s school-readiness role, no real enforcement mechanism remains or is likely to be reestablished any time soon.

Costs and Benefits


When one is looking at federal programs such as Head Start or the state programs being pressed by Pew and its grantees, the policy dilemma is inescapable: how important is it to expand participation in services whose effects are unpredictable and uneven or that don’t last? It’s a fine thing to give kids an early boost along life’s highway. But how much of a priority can this be when, not far down that road, either those kids slow down or others pick up speed (or both) and the pre-K advantage slowly ebbs?

A truly universal program, one that actually served all 4 million four-year-olds, would cost not less than $11.6 billion a year at the low-budget end and as much as $57.8 billion at the high-budget Perry Preschool end. Including three-year-olds would at least double those sums. If we assume universal participation and pick a midlevel cost—say, $9,000 per child, which is close to where Head Start is today and approximates average per-pupil spending on K—12 public education—the outlay for four-year-olds would be about $36 billion per annum.

What’s more troubling is this calculation: since 85 percent of four-year-olds already participate in some sort of pre-K program, as much as $30 billion of that $36 billion figure would replace money that is presently being spent—by federal or state programs, private charity, and out of pocket by parents—while as little as $6 billion would go to pre-K services for children who currently have none. And that’s if they participate. Since no pre-K program will be compulsory, at least some of the families that don’t sign on today will not do so tomorrow, either because they’re too disorganized or because they truly don’t want it for their daughters and sons.
Could this large additional public expenditure be worth it? The most dramatic claims for “investing in young children” have been made by economist James Heckman, who argues that this is a fundamentally important national strategy for building human capital, enhancing workforce productivity, and reducing welfare-type outlays. His analyses have been widely cited by pre-K advocates and, we read, taken seriously by President Obama (presumably not just because they’re both from Chicago). It’s crucial to note, however, that Heckman actually confines himself to disadvantaged children, and that the evidence he cites is based on analyses from the Perry-style “hothouse” programs. Although this may strengthen the case for highly targeted, high-intensity intervention programs for seriously disadvantaged preschoolers, it does little to advance the “universal” argument.

On the grounds of economic returns, in fact, Heckman plainly states that his analysis has led him to favor funding for targeted pre-K programs for disadvantaged youngsters, not those that enroll everyone. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2006, he acknowledged that, because “Children from advantaged environments received substantial early investment” from their families, “there is little basis for providing universal programs at zero cost.” Doing the latter, he explained, would be inefficient, costly, wasteful of public dollars, and probably not effective in helping poor kids. Ironically, advocates’ success in pushing for more universal-style pre-K programs is probably dimming the prospects for more Perry-style intensive interventions in the lives of the neediest children and families.

What to Do?
Society plainly has an interest in upgrading its human talent across the board, as well as in narrowing harmful and unjust learning gaps and ensuring that everybody has a fighting chance to develop their intellect and skills to the maximum. Yet it’s not self-evident that society has a compelling interest in paying for pre-K education except insofar as it demonstrably and durably accomplishes one or more of those objectives.

If states took the $4 billion that, according to NIEER, they’re currently spending on universal-style pre-K programs and concentrated it on the roughly one-tenth of four-year-olds who most need intensive preschooling, they’d have about $40,000 per child to spend. That amounts to a pretty decent kitty, enough to pay for more than two years of Perry Preschool or Abecedarian-style programming. Even stretched across the entire period from birth to age five, it would work out to about $8,000 per child per year, without touching the separate federal child-care dollars, leveraging the Head Start appropriation, or tapping into other current public-sector spending on needy children (including the additional “stimulus” dollars that may or may not prove permanent).

Looking at the pre-K issue that way, one can begin to picture programs that might actually make a difference in young lives. Adding the $10 billion per year envisioned by President Obama would multiply those present outlays.

A powerful case can be made for well-crafted experimentation and innovation in this arena. Despite all the pilot projects, studies, and evaluations, not enough is known with certainty about the essential elements of effective pre-K education and how to make those effects last. More also needs to be learned about the key elements of program quality (concentrating, one hopes, on results rather than on inputs) that can be successfully replicated and brought to scale. Nobody has yet devised the perfect pre-K program, and it’s likely that different approaches will work better for different kids and circumstances. It is therefore folly for states not to try diverse designs and evaluate them all.


Head Start needs urgent attention, too, if policymakers are serious about preschool. Despite its popularity, despite the billions spent on it, and notwithstanding the decent job it does of targeting services on needy kids, today’s Head Start, when viewed through the lens of pre-K education and kindergarten readiness, amounts to a wasted opportunity.

In a rational world, it would make vastly more sense—and cost the taxpayer far less money—to overhaul Head Start (and pre—Head Start and Early Head Start, etc.) utilizing existing programs that are already targeted, perhaps focusing them even more tightly on the neediest kids, making them start earlier and last longer, and insisting that they emphasize pre-literacy, vocabulary, and other school-readiness skills. Such programs would be delivered by standards-based, outcomes-focused, rigorously assessed providers who are willing to be judged and compared on the kindergarten readiness of their graduates.

Getting Head Start right—turning it into an effective pre-K program for poor kids—should be the focus of a joint effort from education secretary Duncan and HHS secretary Katherine Sebelius. It could remain a separate, federally run enterprise, as it has been for four decades, though it would likely work better if states could merge programs and funding with their own intensive pre-K efforts. If Head Start stays separate, its educational effectiveness (and other outcomes) needs to be rigorously appraised, just as Wade Horn undertook to do in the previous administration.

But preschool policy cannot be made in a vacuum. Why the gains that it produces later dissipate and the gaps that it narrows later widen has much to do with unchanging home and neighborhood situations. But we must also ruefully acknowledge, despite all the K—12 education reform of recent decades, the crummy, ineffectual schools that most poor children still enter, the absence of decent choices among schools, and the system’s still-widespread weak expectations, limp curricula, slipshod accountability, and ill-prepared, ill-compensated, ill-motivated, and often inexperienced teachers.

Sustaining whatever pre-K gains can be produced, especially for poor kids, is therefore principally a challenge for K—12 policy and practice. But that does not mean entrusting pre-K education to public-school systems. Today, those systems cannot even sustain their own gains, which is why American 4th graders tend to have stronger results than 8th graders, and high school students do less well than middle schoolers. Adding more years to the present public-education mandate would simply give ineffectual school systems additional time to fumble around while entangling pre-K education more tightly in the web of school politics, federalism disputes, bureaucratic rigidities, and adult interest groups.

Preschool, done right, tightly targeted, and intensively delivered, with sound cognitive standards, quality criteria and readiness assessments, is the proper work of early-childhood educators and what is already a vast preschool and child-care industry. Capitalizing on, maintaining, even magnifying the results of such early education is the proper work of the primary-secondary system—in addition, that is, to all the other serious challenges that confront it.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and senior editor at Education Next. This article is excerpted and adapted from Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut (Education Next Press, May 2009).

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