Analysis of new studies show there is little, if any, benefit to government-funded preschool.
recently reported on a study claiming that Michigan saves $1.15 billion
annually through its low-income preschool programs. But just weeks earlier, a
study of the federal low-income preschool program Head Start found that
participating students exhibited no cognitive benefits beyond first grade.
These conflicting findings demonstrate that spending on early education is not
the wise investment that advocates claim it is.
An analysis of
the first study, commissioned by an agency that coordinates state preschool
programs, reveals that the results are almost exclusively hypothetical. Instead
of evaluating Great Start - Michigan's low-income preschool program - the
report uses a small sample of results from other programs to calculate the
state's theoretical return on investment for low-income early education. The
benchmark programs are very different from Great Start and thus ill-suited to
Low-income preschool programs provide dubious long-term educational benefits.
The three main
programs evaluated are the Perry Preschool Project, Abecedarian Project and
Chicago Child-Parent Center Program. All three are much more than preschools,
with some including home visitations, parenting classes and extended tutoring
beyond preschool. Consequently, these programs on average cost much more than
Great Start. Furthermore, the analysis of these programs' long-term benefits
used small sample sizes and nonrandomized control groups, rendering the studies
unfit to support the case for policy decisions about Michigan's preschool
The recent Head Start study, on the other hand,
meets the gold standard for scientific research in education. Using randomly
assigned intervention and control groups, the study compared 112 possible
effects of Head Start on 4-year-olds, including cognitive, socio-emotional and health outcomes. Of these outcomes, only two proved to be statistically significant
after first grade when compared with the control group. The authors of the
study conclude: "The benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely
absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole."
Some might argue
that since the $8 billion Head Start program serves only low-income students,
the results would be different in a state-run universal preschool program.
Oklahoma and Georgia have been running universal preschool programs for more
than a decade, and the results provide a reasonable example of the
effectiveness of such programs.
achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that
neither state made gains since implementing universal preschool. In fact,
Oklahoma's scores have trended downward.
The results from
Georgia and Oklahoma, as well as the recent Head Start study, should signal to
policymakers that low-income preschool programs provide dubious long-term
educational benefits. Expanding these types of programs when their
effectiveness has yet to be proven is imprudent.
Michael Van Beek is director of
education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and
educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to
reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the
Center are properly cited.