Politics & Policy

The President and the Preschools

Earlier school enrollment does not confer long-term academic benefits.


In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama announced an initiative to make preschool universal, citing studies that purport to show academic benefits from earlier school enrollment. Unfortunately, this plan flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that preschool has no lasting impact on children’s future educational success.

#ad#A recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services of Head Start, a 40-year-old preschool program for low-income families, found that any gains made by children in the program had disappeared by third grade. This finding is supported by a mountain of earlier studies that show no long-term advantage in school performance for children who attend preschool.

The president repeated the oft-cited myth that “every dollar we invest in high-quality early-childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” This estimate is based on the results of an intensive early-intervention program conducted on a handful of children in 1962. No preschool program before or since has shown such results. In an earnest desire to ensure that every child has love and education, enthusiasts have wildly oversold preschool’s s benefits.

Preparing a child for school requires what it always has, and it’s neither fancy nor costly. It’s what I and millions of other parents do every day: talk, read, sing, and play with our children.

Education Department data have shown that most children enter school with the building blocks for achievement — with or without preschool. A majority recognize numbers, letters, and shapes. Nearly all are in good health, enthusiastic, and creative, key precursors to achievement.

Our youngest Americans are also competitive internationally. In England, France, and Spain, over 90 percent of four-year-olds attend preschool versus just 74 percent of American four-year-olds. Yet American children outperform their European peers in reading, math, and science. It’s in the later years that American children fall behind.

To improve our country’s educational indicators — a laudable goal shared by Americans across the political spectrum — we should look to proven ways of improving education results, giving parents muscle through programs such as education savings accounts, charter schools, grants, and tax credits.

Wisconsin is home to the nation’s best-known school-choice program, which has cut the high-school dropout rate almost in half for participating students. Arizonans can choose from an abundance of charter schools, and test results show that charter students there learn more each year than their peers in traditional public schools.

Parents should get an “A” for a job well done with preschoolers — no help from Washington requested or required.

Darcy Olsen is president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute.

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