Government-Run Preschool Is a Dead End, Not a Lifeline

Greater economic equality requires the “lifeline” of more government-funded preschool for disadvantaged children, says Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman in his New York Times editorial last week. High-quality education can certainly enhance a foundation of opportunity and prosperity. But the empirical record shows that government preschool is a dead end, not a lifeline.

Conspicuously absent from Heckman’s review is the longest-running federal preschool program Head Start, managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Launched in 1965, this $96.4 million government program was meant as a targeted catch-up program for around a half million disadvantaged students about to enter kindergarten. Today Head Start costs nearly $8 billion and has 964,000 enrollees.

This means that Head Start enrollment has not quite doubled in nearly 50 years, but the total program cost has increased more than ten-fold in constant, inflation-adjusted dollars.

Surely there must a gargantuan return on that kind of “investment,” right? Wrong.

A 1985 HHS meta-analysis of more than 200 research reports on Head Start’s effectiveness concluded that Head Start students’ results were no better than their disadvantaged peers who did not participate in the program (p. 1). Not much has changed since then.

According to the two latest Head Start evaluations by HHS, impacts faded out as early as the end of 1st grade, and others dissipated by the end of 3rd grade. The most recent HHS evaluation in 2012 looked at Head Start impacts through 3rd grade and concluded:

Looking across the full study period, from the beginning of Head Start through 3rd grade, the evidence is clear that access to Head Start improved children’s preschool outcomes across developmental domains, but had few impacts on children in kindergarten through 3rd grade…. [A]ccess to Head Start had an impact on children’s language and literacy development while children were in Head Start. These effects, albeit modest in magnitude, … rapidly dissipated in elementary school. (pp. xvi and xxi)

The evaluation noted “suggestive evidence of a positive impact” in reading for the four-year-old cohort; but there was a “significantly lower child grade promotion rate” among the three-year-old cohort. (pp. xxi-xxii)

Those results are not surprising given findings from the previous HHS evaluation, which focused on Head Start impacts through 1st grade:

Despite the early, positive, cognitive effects, subsequent direct assessments and teacher ratings show only weak evidence of an impact and only at the end of 1st grade…. This pattern of limited cognitive impacts in the school years may suggest that the magnitude of the initial cognitive impacts may not have been sufficiently potent for the early gains Head Start children made to be sustained as they developed and moved into the elementary school years.  (p. 9-5)

Thus the evidence shows government-run preschool is an expensive failure for children and taxpayers. Heckman rightly notes that skills beget skills, but with Head Start impacts fading out around the time children outgrow their sippy cups, how is more government preschool supposed to be, as Heckman says, “a great economic and social equalizer”?

Well, maybe there are other programs worth considering. Heckman extols the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, a high-intervention program conducted from 1962 through 1965 in Michigan’s Ypsilanti Public Schools. Back then project researchers asserted that taxpayers would get a $7.16 return for every dollar spent—except neither they nor toddlers got the promised bang for the buck.

Aside from the weak scientific methods used (see here, p. 3; here, pp. 2-3; and here, pp. 18-21), the results have never been replicated, and even sympathetic researchers caution that the touted benefits don’t apply to the federal Head Start program or state preschool programs (p. 12). Moreover, the project focused on just 58 disadvantaged preschoolers with mental retardation, and experts caution that this is a poor model to universalize, especially since the program also included in-home visits (p. 3).

Perhaps, as Heckman argues, we need to start sooner than three years old. The results with such programs suggest otherwise.

The Carolina Abecedarian Project, begun in 1972, involved 57 infants averaging about four months old (see here, pp. 3-4; and here, pp. 21-23). These children received intensive home interventions that lasted until they entered kindergarten. As with the Perry Preschool Project, results were never replicated, and experts noted that after nearly five year there was very little difference between participants and non-participants.

A federally funded longitudinal study of the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program began in the mid-1980s and at least had a larger study group—more than 1,000 low-income children. But those children participated with their parents in extensive workshops and tutoring—again far more than just preschool (see here, pp. 4-5). Like the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Projects, the Chicago program analysis used suspect methodologies. That didn’t stop other research organizations from insisting that every dollar invested would yield returns ranging from $2.62 (here, pp. xiv, xxxvi, 96, 112, and 141) to $11. It also didn’t curb enthusiastic claims that preschool boosts high-school graduation rates, and slashes arrest rates.

Yet state-focused research tells a very different story.

State-funded preschool and universal kindergarten programs spanning several decades show no long-term impact on grade retention, future reliance on public assistance, employment, or earnings. Those programs also don’t curb dropout or incarceration rates among disadvantaged students. Georgia and Oklahoma have the longest-running state preschool programs, started in 1993 and 1998 respectively. Yet academic outcomes remain flat at best, and Oklahoma actually experienced declines in reading scores.

Heckman insists that we’re not expanding government child care and preschool because of “unfounded doubt and fear of doing things differently.”

In reality, such programs have expanded significantly over the years, and if President Obama and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi get their way, government-run early child care and education will enroll all toddlers—who will be subjected to the seemingly endless battery of testing older students must contend with under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Like Heckman, Obama and Pelosi insist such expansion is an economic imperative if we want to be globally competitive. Experts from other countries have serious doubts.

In a letter to London’s Daily Telegraph, more than 100 experts—including England’s former Children’s Commissioner, along with scholars from the London School of Economics and Cambridge University—say children do better if they wait to “enter school at six or seven.”  The signatories add:

The role of play is being down-valued in England’s nurseries…. Indeed current policy suggestions would mean that the tests and targets which dominate primary education will soon be foisted upon 4 year olds.  Research does not support an early start to testing and quasi-formal teaching, but provides considerable evidence to challenge it…. Instead of pursuing an enlightened approach informed by global best practice, successive Ministers have prescribed an ever-earlier start to formal learning. This can only cause profound damage to the self-image and learning dispositions of a generation of children.

Decades of empirical evidence show that government is no expert when it comes to high-quality early education. Worse, as government expands it crowds out private providers, stifling the healthy competition necessary for improving quality and lowering costs.

Finally, and worst of all, as government takes over, programs that had once been voluntary have a funny way of becoming compulsory. Parents who prefer to educate their toddlers at home would have to start jumping through all kinds of regulatory hoops, or they might not be given a choice at all, depending on which state they live in.

Rather than increasing dependency on government subsidies and opening the door to more compulsory schooling, all families should be able to deduct their preschool expenses from their federal taxes. Individuals and businesses should also be able to make tax-deductible contributions to non-profit scholarship organizations to help low-income parents afford the preschools they—not government officials—think are best.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
Full Biography and Recent Publications
Beacon Posts by Vicki Alger
  • Catalyst