The movement to provide universal pre-K to our nation’s children thought it got a big boost earlier this week when the New York Times publisheda front page article about a study showing a disturbingly large vocabulary gap between low and high income 2 year olds. In fact, the article, titled “Language Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K,” echoing the position of President Obama, New York City’s mayor-in-waiting Bill de Blasio, the National Governor’s Association, and numerous advocacy groups, was a perfect reflection of what might be called the preschool fairy tale. Researchers have been following preschool kids for decades and while they’ve found a few high quality programs that have had some benefits, they’ve discovered nothing to suggest that pre-k can solve the inequality problem. On the contrary: their results inadvertently show just how hard it is to for the state to compensate for family breakdown.
It’s true that good preschools raise the math and reading scores of disadvantaged kids. The problem is that the gains are almost always temporary. Study after study of every kind of program since Head Start first came on line in the 1960’s to recent state wide programs in Georgia and Oklahoma has concluded that, with the lonely exception of third grade boys’ math scores in Tulsa, cognitive gains “fade out” by third grade, probably because subpar schools and an unsupportive environment at home were unable to help pre-K kids take advantage of those gain.
Well aware of these consistently disappointing findings, researchers now tend to emphasize preschool’s potential to create lasting benefits in students’ “soft skills” such as attentiveness and self-control. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, one of early childhood education’s most prominent advocates, has argued that because soft skills are vital to labor market and life success, under some conditions preschools have actually been able to reduce welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, and crime rates, while also improving educational outcomes and earnings. At least one study has estimated that the resulting higher tax revenues, lower imprisonment and welfare costs have created a return of nearly 13 dollars for every preschool dollar spent.
But those who worry about inequality – and I count myself among them – shouldn’t get too excited. Heckman’s findings are based on several small, model programs from the 1960’s. The most famous and influential of them, the Perry Preschool in Ypsalanti, Michigan, involved only 58 children. It takes a heavy dose of wishful thinking to assume that states are any more capable of creating a large system of Perry quality preschools than they have been of designing networks of high quality K-12 schools.
And even if the states were that clever, the results wouldn’t bring us anything approaching equality. Perry boys were no more likely to graduate high school than comparable boys who had no preschool and though their earnings were higher, they were still well short of middle class. At age 27, the program group was earning $12,000 vs. $10,000 for the control group. At age 40, the fortunes of grads relative to their peers had improved, but only by a little; they were earning an average of $20,800 vs. $15,300 for the non-Perry controls.
As for the Perry girls, their high school graduation rates were significantly higher than non-Perry grads, and they were more likely to be employed. But their earnings remained low, possibly because 57% of them—a number considerably lower than the control group but one hardly signaling upward mobility—had had a nonmarital birth by the age of 27. More disturbingly, even these mediocre gains were not passed on to the next generation. The first two children of Perry grads (there’s no data on later siblings) were just as likely as the children of non Perry-ites to go on welfare, drop out of school, and to get arrested; their earnings were also similarly anemic.
In other words, the graduates of the best preschool designed for low income kids we’ve ever had in the United States grew up to become low skilled, low income single parents, less costly to society than others without their early educational advantage, but equally likely to raise children who would cycle back into poverty. Family researchers find that contemporary American poverty often involves chaotic homes where children go through many “transitions”: disappearing fathers, new stepparents, who themselves frequently leave for other relationships, and stepsiblings and stepgrandparents who are just passing through. Under these circumstances parents are probably more preoccupied with picking up the pieces of their own lives than on enriching their children’s vocabulary. It should surprise no one to hear that the more transitions children, particularly boys, experience, the worse their educational outcomes.
(MORE: School is Too Hostile to Boys)
What the research really suggests, then, is that it’s parents, not formal education, that makes the difference for young children’s readiness for school and success once they get there. Preschool optimists seem to believe that programs can either compensate for, or change, families who are not or cannot be fully invested in their children’s development and education. At this point, their credence far outruns the evidence.