November-December 2007 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Why Professionals and Politicians Are Wrong About Preschool
Suppose you discovered that federal and state governments were increasingly using public money to take young children away from their homes and parents and putting them in programs supposedly designed to increase their academic performance? Suppose research showed few long-lasting academic benefits from such programs and the likelihood for serious harm to children? But suppose those supporting the programs were misusing this research and claiming it supported preschool? Suppose parents, worn down by politicians', professional associations', and the media's constantly proclaiming that children need to attend these programs, were sending their children in increasing numbers, disrupting the children's learning and social development and weakening families? If all that were happening, wouldn't you want to do something? Well, it's time to act.
In 2006, at least 40 states were providing state funding for preschool programs while three states (Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma) offered universal preschool. In 1965, 5% of three year olds and 16% of four year olds attended preschool. By 2006, 42% of three year olds and 68% of four year olds attended. This represents an enormous change in the way vulnerable young children are being treated in just over 40 years. Even people who think it's a good idea to send children to kindergarten at age five should realize that institutionalizing three and four year olds is much more stressful for them and their families.
This column shows ways in which a few studies are being seriously misused to push for more preschool. It examines what's behind the increase in preschool. Then it suggest actions we can take.
How Does Attending Preschool Affect Children?
First, consider the terminology. "Preschool" refers to any program, public or private, for children not yet old enough to enroll in public school kindergarten, usually at age five but sometimes at four. "Universal preschool" uses state and federal tax dollars to make public school preschool available four year olds and sometimes three year olds.
Advocates of preschool often claim that studies show that children benefit. It is true that several studies seem to show that preschool has a short-term positive effect on academic work of disadvantaged children, although the benefits disappear by third grade. However, a more honest analysis of these studies clearly shows that they do NOT provide evidence that preschool has long-term positive effects on children's academic work. They do NOT show that children who are not disadvantaged would benefit from preschool. In addition, other studies demonstrate that preschool is harmful.
Two studies are frequently cited to support preschool. The Perry Preschool study covers 123 disadvantaged children with IQs between 70 and 85. Sixty-five children were in the control group and 58 attended one or two years of half-day preschool for seven months each year and received periodic home visits from 1962-65. Researchers continuing to follow participants in the study claim the program has had positive effects on them as children and adults. However, many people question this conclusion for a variety of reasons, including those discussed below. In the second study, RAND Corporation analyzed data from the Chicago Child-Parent Center program, which involved 1,000 disadvantaged participants in a preschool program and a control group of 550. It has limitations similar to those of Perry.
Reasons these and other studies should not be used to support preschool programs:
• Studies show the benefits the children received were extremely limited. Although there were some academic gains in the first few year, they were gone by third grade, a phenomenon so common that there's a term for it, "fade out." In addition, while the children in the Perry program did somewhat better than the control group as adults, the program did not solve basic problems. Nearly a third dropped out of high school, nearly a third were arrested, and three out of five received welfare as adults.
• The programs studied included more than preschool classes. The Perry program had periodic home visits and increased parental involvement. The Chicago program included resources for parents, involvement of parents in school activities, home visitations by staff, health screening, speech therapy, nursing and meal services, and tutoring in reading and math until the third grade. It is impossible to tell which part or parts of the program were responsible for the benefits that some children experienced. There is no basis for claiming that programs which only offer preschool classes would have the same results.
• To be considered valid, a scientific experiment has to be replicable. However, in 40 years, no other study has duplicated the results of the Perry study, leading scientists to question its validity.
• Experienced researchers criticize the methodology of the Perry study, which used small samples, did not rely on random selection, and used comparison groups infrequently. These flaws undermine the results of the study.
• To make matters worse, an analysis of the Perry program claims that each $1 spent on preschool will save $7 in the future. This highly flawed study cannot support such a claim. However, it's also the kind of simplistic quantitative information that legislators and the media thrive on, so it's been widely quoted.
• Even if these studies had shown that the children benefited significantly for many years from these programs (which the studies did not show), they still would not show how preschool would affect children who are not disadvantaged. Therefore, people who cite such studies in pushing for universal preschool are misleading the public.
• On the other hand, significant research shows that preschool can be detrimental to children, decreasing their eagerness to learn, damaging their self-esteem, and interfering with their natural gifts and talents. As David Elkind writes, "There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits, and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm . . . If we do not wake up to the potential danger of these harmful practices, we may do serious damage to a large segment of the next generation . . ." (Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk, p. 4)
• But what about the supposed social benefits of preschool?
In addition to potential academic harm, a November, 2005 study by Stanford and the University of California found evidence that preschool interferes with social development and leads to negative social behavior like acting up, having trouble cooperating, aggression, and bullying.
For an excellent analysis of research on preschool, including documentation for the information presented here, see "Assessing Proposals for Preschool and Kindergarten: Essential Information for Parents, Taxpayers and Policymakers" by Darcy Olsen with Lisa Snell, available on the Internet.
What's Behind the Increase Preschools?
If children and their families don't benefit from preschool, why are preschools increasing?
• Politicians, professional associations, foundations and other organizations, and the media are increasingly pointing to universal preschool (and all-day kindergarten) as a solution to a multitude of problems, including poor academic achievement, low high school graduation rates, crime, and welfare. Promoters of preschool are advancing their proposals with misinterpretations of and falsehoods about the studies cited.
Among the strongest promoters of preschool are the following.
--Powerful associations of professionals involved in preschool are promoting it to increase the prestige, income, and job security of their members. Among them are the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE), and two national teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). For example, a NAEYC and NAECS/SDE position statement from November, 2003 states: "The program goals used to guide the evaluation [of early childhood programs] are comprehensive, including goals related to families, teachers and other staff, and community as well as child-oriented goals that address a broad set of developmental and learning outcomes." These professionals clearly want to take over the traditional role of the family, including providing goals for families!
--One of the strongest voices among private organizations is that of Marc Tucker, the President of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). Tucker has worked with both Democrats and Republicans. He has been one of the primary proponents of federal and state standards in education and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Given his role in getting these programs established, his support for preschool needs to be taken seriously. Also, the major problems generated by both standards and NCLB cast doubt on other programs Tucker supports.
--Some politicians are making preschool a local, state, and federal campaign issue. Perhaps the strongest support comes from Hillary Clinton. The Fact Sheet on Hillary's Youth Opportunity Agenda on her "Hillary for President" website includes this: "Invest $10 Billion in Universal Preschool: Hillary has a detailed plan to provide universal access to high quality pre-school for all four-year olds [sic] through a federal-state partnership."
A congratulatory letter Tucker sent to Hillary Clinton on November 11, 1992 can be found by doing a search for "The Seamless Web: Minnesota's New Education System. Appendix G." In it, Tucker wrote, "Early childhood education should be combined with quality day care to provide wrap around programs that enable working parents to drop off their children at the beginning of the work day and pick them up at the end." Such connections between foundations and politicians increase concerns about both. Also, note that Tucker is cleverly co-opting two generations of workers, the parents who are freed of responsibility for their children so they can work now and children who can be molded and trained to be compliant workers in the future. Also, Tucker's organization is called the National Center on Education and the Economy. NCEE describes itself as "a not-for-profit organization created to develop proposals for building the world class education and training system that the Untied States must have if it is to continue to be a world class economy."
• The push for preschool and the inaccurate information about the benefits of preschool are taking their toll. Parents have heard repeatedly that they are not able to give their children what they need and that their children will be behind throughout their lifetimes if they don't attend preschool. Add to this the desire of many families for two incomes, the number of single parents, the idea that you are not a worthwhile person unless you are earning a substantial salary, and the fatigue that can come at the end of a day spent with young children, no matter how wonderful they are. It's not surprising that many parents feel that they can't afford not to send their children to preschool.
What We Can Do
• We can decide not to send our children to preschool and share with others our ideas, experiences, and what we have learned.
• If we have young children ourselves, we can develop ways to find support for ourselves and to support others. We can get together with other parents whose three, four, and five year olds are not in preschool; organize meetings that provide supportive information for parents; and support each other in concrete ways, like exchanging meals, sharing outgrown clothes, etc.
• If we no longer have young children, we can support parents who do. We can invite the whole family over for a meal or other activity. We can spend time with their children in ways that the children are comfortable with and that give the parents a break. We can let them know how much we respect and appreciate their decision not to send their children to preschool.
• We can educate others. In our homeschooling support groups, statewide organizations, and other appropriate groups, we can discuss and vote on resolutions about preschool. Such resolutions could include problems raised by preschools, accurate information about the results of studies of preschool, and alternatives that provide support for families with young children. For a sample resolution, see: homeedmag.com/HEM/246/sampleresolution.html
• We can share our concerns with public officials, including local officials, state and federal legislators. A resolution passed by an organization of which we are a member can provide a good starting point for a discussion. It's important to be prepared to explain misleading studies, including Perry and Chicago/Rand, and what's wrong with the claim that every dollar invested now will save seven dollars later.
• We can also mention alternatives, such as increasing resources available to families with young children by increasing tax deductions for dependents and instituting family leave policies so parents have the time and resources to spend more time with their young children.
• We can also share our information and perspectives in informal conversations, through letters to the editor, on talk radio shows, etc.
Politicians, professional associations, and private organizations are working to increase preschool, using inaccurate and misleading information about research on the effects of preschool to bolster their case. We can support children, families, and society by sharing accurate information and in other ways.
© 2007, Larry and Susan Kaseman