Government Officials Still Will Not Admit the Failure of Universal Preschool

by Robert Maynard

Despite new evidence, government officials still will not admit that the notion of universal preschool is an expansive idea that just does not ad up in terms of educational results.  The Wall Street Journal just came out with an article that sheds light on this new evidence:

That would be Lyndon Johnson’s Head Start program, birth date 1965. In December of last year, the Health and Human Services Department released the most comprehensive study of Head Start to date, which took years to prepare. The 346-page report followed toddlers who won lotteries to join Head Start in several states and those who didn’t through the third grade. There were no measurable differences between the two groups across 47 outcome measures. In other words, Head Start’s impact is no better than random.

Preschool activists explain away such results by claiming that different programs vary enormously in quality. The White House claims fewer than three in 10 kids are in a “high quality” program. Since we don’t live in Lake Wobegon, well, of course. But it turns out that there are even deep disagreements in the early education literature about how to improve quality, or even how to measure quality in a valid, objective, reliable and fair way.

Despite the results of this extensive  Health and Human Services Department study, President Obama is still citing “study after study” that purport to show public preschool for every child results in lasting academic gains and other cognitive and social improvements.  This gives me a sense of dejavu.  Back in 2006 True North Radio, Freedom Works Vermont and the Ethan Allen Institute, among others, were arguing that the case for universal preschool was not as good as proponents were suggesting.

The Goldwater Institute examined these claims and reported their findings in their February 2005 Policy Report. After examining the results of several programs considered to be early education models, including Head Start, they found that the widespread adoption of preschool and full-day Kindergarten would not likely improve student achievement. Some early intervention has been shown to produce meaningful short term effects on disadvantaged students’ grade level retention and special education placement. Here again that interesting: that such effects usually disappear when the children leave the program.

This phenomenon, known as fade-out, is important because it suggest that either early education is not relevant to future academic performance, or that the current public school system as structured is incapable of sustaining those early gains.

For mainstream students there is little evidence that either formal preschool or kindergarten is necessary for later school achievement. On the contrary, there is evidence that daycare and preschool can be detrimental. According to David Elkind, Professor of Child Development at Tuffs University, proposals from the 1960’s aimed at helping disadvantaged children were uncritically appropriated by parents and educators for middle-class children, resulting in the miseducation of those children. Dr. Elkind explains that children who receive academic instruction too early, usually before the age of six or seven, are put at risk for no apparent gain. By attempting to teach the wrong things at the wrong time, early instruction can permanently damage a child’s self esteem, reduce a child’s willingness to learn and block a child’s natural gifts and abilities.

Ironically the push for education was in part an effort to copy the European approach to education.  Check out this July of 2002 USA Today article arguing that European preschools should embarrass the USA.  No actual test results are cited, merely the fact that many European nations come a lot closer to achieving universal preschool and we have what is described as “a patchwork of preschools.”

Before rushing to imitate the European apporach to early education, we may want to look at comparative results and see if there really is anyting to be embarrassed over.  It might be a good idea to take a look at findings in the Goldwater Institute Report, which cites comparisons of American school students in their early years with their European counterparts, who attend government preschools cited by preschool advocates as a model for early education in America.

The results of this comparison are seen as suggesting that America’s flexible approach to early education gives children a strong foundation when compared to their European counterparts. At age 10, the report notes, American children have higher reading math and science scores than their European peers. The well know deficiencies in these subjects when compared to international students, occurs as our children get older and have spent more time in the current school system. U.S. forth graders are “A” students on the international curve. By the time they reach eighth grade they are “C” students on an international curve while U.S. forth graders score better than 70% of their peers, our eighth graders barely score above the international average. By twelfth grade, U.S. students score a “D” on the international scale, performing well below students from all but a few countries.

What these test scores reveal is that U.S. students excel in reading and science and perform above average in math during their early years. Over time, U.S. student performance declines and international students take the lead. It is highly illogical to conclude from such facts that the weak spot in our education system is a lack of preparation in the early years. In fact, what we should learn from this that our informal, decentralized early education system is outperforming the more centralized and inflexible European model and is excelling at preparing our children for superior achievement in the elementary years.

Such results point to the conclusion that the way to improve academic achievement is to fix the current system, rather than add to the period in which we subject our children to institutionalization. Instead of undermining this one educational advantage U.S. children have in the area of global academic competition, by adopting the less successful European model, it would be a wise course of action to address our current K-12 system where the longer our children are in it, the worse they do in comparison to international students.

In an increasingly competitive global environment, our children’s future is at risk if they continue to fall behind their peers at the international level. It is time to reverse course and build on the strength’s of our early education system instead of undermining it with further institutionalization. If a decentralized and flexible approach puts our children at an advantage in early education, why not apply that approach to our current K-12 system? Perhaps we should put parents back in control of their own children’s education and put an end to the government monopoly over education.