The Problem With Preschool

by Robert Pondiscio
August 22nd, 2008

Mom, apple pie and universal PreK?  Not so fast argue Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell of the libertarian Reason Foundation in today’s Wall Street Journal.  With the exception of “very intense interventions targeted toward severely disadvantaged kids, “there’s little statistical evidence that strapping a backpack on all 4-year-olds and sending them to preschool is good for them.” While U.S. preschool attendance has gone up to nearly 70% from 16% in the last half century, they note, fourth-grade reading, science, and math scores on the NAEP have stayed flat since the early 1970s.

Preschool activists at the Pew Charitable Trust and Pre-K Now — two major organizations pushing universal preschool — refuse to take this evidence seriously. The private preschool market, they insist, is just glorified day care. Not so with quality, government-funded preschools with credentialed teachers and standardized curriculum. But the results from Oklahoma and Georgia — both of which implemented universal preschool a decade or more ago — paint an equally dismal picture.

 Dalmia and Snell maintain that preschool gains don’t stick because the K-12 system “is too dysfunctional to maintain them.”

“Our understanding of the effects of preschool is still very much in its infancy. But one inescapable conclusion from the existing research is that it is not for everyone. Kids with loving and attentive parents — the vast majority — might well be better off spending more time at home than away in their formative years. The last thing that public policy should do is spend vast new sums of taxpayer dollars to incentivize a premature separation between toddlers and parents.”

Update:  Richard Whitmire, guesting over at eduwonk, is having none of this.


  1. My wife and I do have some personal experience with pre-school, back in the late 70′s and early 80s. One of our children was in head start, four or five days a week, for at least four hours each day. Another was in a local preschool program, two or three days a week for no more than three hours each day in the basement of a church. I don’t know whether this preschool was a business, a non-profit organization run by the church, or what. We felt our children benefited from both programs. I became a believer in preschool. It gives the kids some early experience in getting along with others and adjusting to a regular routine. I thought it was well worthwhile.

    But I also formed some opinions about financing, and what the most desirable scope of preschool might be. I may not have the figures right, as it was many years ago, but I was painfully aware of the cost at the time. I learned, I don’t remember how, that the cost of head start was somewhere over $3000 per student per year, pretty much comparable to expenditures for public schools at that time. Of course we, as parents, paid nothing. The local program, in contrast, was entirely our expense, but it was very modest. I don’t remember what we paid, but I will speculate that it came out to maybe $2 per hour, for about 10 hours a week for perhaps 16 weeks in the spring before kindergarten. That would be a total outlay of $320, or about one tenth what head start cost the government for our other child. Yet, my judgment, admittedly subjective, was the benefit to the child in these two situations was very similar.

    If some is good, more is better, is it not? If 160 hours of preschool before kindergarten is good, then doesn’t 1000 hours have to be better? And 2000 hours even better yet? Well, of course not. Some things do take time, and skimping on the time seriously compromises success. I am painfully aware of the time factor in teaching college math. Time is a serious constraint for many of my students. I have plenty of students who fail in the time frame imposed by conventional college practices, but who might succeed if they could simply put in twice the time. But they just don’t have the time, especially with family and job responsibilities that many of them have, to put in the hours to learn the math and pass the tests. But is this situation in any way comparable to getting the benefit of preschool? Will twice the time in preschool produce twice the benefit?

    My opinion, still subjective of course, is that probably 100 hours of preschool in the spring before kindergarten is sufficient to get the full benefit. Maybe stretch it to several hundred hours just to be sure. But I don’t think anything beyond that can be justified in terms of educational or social benefit to the child. Beyond that I think it is indeed pretentious day care. Let people pay it on their own if they believe it is worth while, but let’s don’t make it mandatory and do it through government.

    Comment by Brian Rude — August 22, 2008 @ 11:54 am

  2. The benefit of the universal preschool initiative is that it allows politicians/reformers to feel like their improving school without really doing so.

    Preschool can be a wonderful experience for many if not all children. But to insist, as many ed reformers do, that universal preschool will fix any/all of the ills of K-12 schooling is greatly mistaken. The problem is not that children are not ready to learn but that they actually learn very little when they are in school.

    It would be nicer if those same politicians/reformers would propose/promote educational initiatives that might actually improve our children’s education.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — August 22, 2008 @ 1:21 pm


    Interesting that so many suburbs are choosing to opt out. Whole counties even. Putnam county is one of few areas that is affordable to live in and still remain within commuting distance of the city. No Universal Pre-K for your children though. Thus, it becomes a lot less affordable.

    Comment by bill — August 24, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

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