Pre-K’s Broken Promise
“Children learning, parents earning!” That was Nancy Pelosi’s summation of the case for the “comprehensive child care and early learning legislation” of 2017, a plan similar to the proposal currently languishing in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. For many progressives, it is axiomatic that government-funded daycare or pre-K is great for kids, for parents, and for the economy. Even many opponents of universal pre-K may assume that it confers benefits on children.
I’ve long marveled at how one-sided coverage of the crucial question of who should care for kids is, so it’s notable that as Biden’s BBB hangs in limbo, a number of outlets (including progressive ones) have commented on a large new study showing that the effects of pre-K are not just not positive, but are actually harmful. Or they can be.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University studied 3,000 low-income Tennessee children who had all applied for a pre-K program. Some were accepted and others were not. Both groups were followed from age 3 or 4 until the sixth grade. Earlier results from this cohort were published after the kids completed the third grade. They found that while the pre-K kids scored better on literacy and other measures in kindergarten, those gains quickly eroded, and by grade 3, the non-pre-K kids had caught up and surpassed the pre-K cohort. The results were worrying enough that one of the study’s authors cautioned about the national rush to implement universal pre-K. “You have school systems that are pushing pre-K when they have demonstrably failing K-12 systems,” Dale Farran warned. “It makes me cringe.”
Now Vanderbilt has published the follow-up looking at how the children did up to grade six and the news is even worse. The gap between the pre-K and other kids continues to widen, with the pre-K group scoring worse on reading, writing, and science and also showing higher rates of disciplinary problems.
A lot of the enthusiasm for universal pre-K grew out of two very small studies of extremely high-quality programs, the Perry preschool project in Michigan and the Abecedarian preschool in North Carolina. But those programs were staffed by college graduates, and the kids scored better than controls on a number of measures. There are studies out there finding some salutary effects of various other programs as well. The problem, as I noted in my 2018 book Sex Matters, is that scaling up quality preschool programs is very hard. Decades of research on Head Start has failed to find durable academic benefits. And in Canada’s Quebec province, the adoption of universal pre-K in 1997 led to serious negative outcomes when the kids reached adolescence. Teenagers who had been placed in daycare showed marked increases in anxiety, aggression, and dissatisfaction with life compared with those who had spent their early years in parental or other care. Even more worrying was the sharp increase in criminal activity noted among the teenagers who had participated in the program compared with peers in other provinces.
The question of what’s best for children is complicated by many factors. Children from very poor homes tend to do better in pre-K than kids from wealthier families for obvious reasons. Poor children are often born to single mothers with little education. Their home lives are usually less stable than those of better-off kids. But that’s why the Vanderbilt results are so important. They compare low-income children against other low-income children, and they indicate that pre-K was not a help, but a hindrance.
My own instinct on this is profoundly countercultural. Why should we push parents of very young children into the workforce when it’s clear that most kids do better when mom or dad is home? Frankly, with the small exception of mentally ill or wicked people, most parents love their children and derive great satisfaction in raising them. A Pew survey found that time spent with kids was rated as “very meaningful” by 62 percent of parents, compared with 59 percent who chose leisure, 43 percent who mentioned housework (really!), and 36 percent who cited paid work. Yet another Pew survey found that 59 percent of adults believe children are better off when one parent stays home to raise them. And among married mothers, only 28 percent said full-time work was their preference. The ideal situation for children is a stable, two-parent family. That configuration permits the widest scope for parental choice while also conferring greater income and security on kids.
But many families, particularly single-parent families, cannot afford to have a parent stay home to care for young kids. That’s why direct subsidies to parents make much more sense than subsidizing universal pre-K. Let the parents decide how to spend the stipend. If they prefer to work and place the child or children in daycare or pre-K (and there really isn’t much of a distinction), they can make that choice. But if they choose to care for their own children, the extra cash will make that possible. Sen. Mitt Romney actually proposed a child allowance that even very progressive analysts have praised.
Our society is much more work-centered than other developed nations. We tend to derive meaning and status from our money-earning activities. But as the Vanderbilt study and Quebec experience highlight, the kids who are shuffled into institutional settings at very young ages pay a price. Young children need tenderness and attention more than spelling drills or arithmetic. Toddlerhood is a time for security and trust more than stimulation and socialization. Those who want to help families should start with the reality that parents are best for kids.