The Pre-School Advantage

With the economy in the dumps, states are cutting back on pre-school programs

Keven Drum reports on a new study that looked at the long term benefits of pre-school. 

A team of researchers has reported in Science on a long-term study of intensive preschool intervention in Chicago, and the results are pretty impressive. The study group is a cohort of mostly African-American children born in 1979-80, and the followup study was done when they were 28 years old.

When decisions about where to make budget cuts, the long-term costs of these cuts have to enter the calculus. 


15 thoughts on “The Pre-School Advantage

  1. As I recall, just getting little ones to preschool is a huge ordeal. Are we sure this isn’t another one of these cases (like eating dinner as a family) where what we are seeing is the difference between disorganized and organized families? Also, a child who is hard to get to preschool may be a child who (by reason of temperament) is headed to jail.

  2. I look at it as “pay now or pay later”. Short term cost of preschool now vs longterm costs is someone as a teen or young adult in the system. Imagine the spinoff effect for future generations of a family whose trajectory has been changed via early intervention.

  3. This was a special program, rather than just standard preschool, it sounds like.
    This jumped out at me from the abstract: “Dosage within program components was mostly unrelated to outcomes.” So presumably, more contact hours did not result in better results. That’s interesting.
    My personal experience as a moderate income parent in DC was that preschool was a pretty harrowing experience (balanced out by being almost free–about $4 for a three hour morning). Our daughter was sick and home at least 2 days out of 5 (with a bug she got from preschool) and then we’d all get sick, I had to work co-op and bring in snack, and my daughter just didn’t want to go there in the morning and would say so the whole ride in. Preschool started at 9, but we usually rolled in around 9:30 or 9:40 and then she’d need to be picked up at 12. The last straw for my husband was when our preschooler got the rotovirus from preschool, she got dehydrated and had to go to ER for several hours to get rehydrated, and then her infant brother got the rotovirus and had to spend the night at the hospital to get rehydrated. After that, we pulled our preschooler out for the rest of the year. Even as a two-parent middle class family, preschool was too much for us and was positively dangerous for our infant.
    We had a much better experience with Parent’s Day Out in Texas for our youngest child, but it was two days a week and we didn’t have a younger sibling at home for him to transmit the plague to.

  4. I went to Montessori preschool at a local church in the neighborhood (age 3-4), and then Headstart preschool (age 4-5). I doubt the Montessori was hard to get into, though it was probably naturally limited to liberal middle class white people who lived in the neighborhood. The Headstart program I went to was selective fo white middle class students, but I think accepted all neighborhood students. Snacks were provided at both by the school, and parents were not expected to volunteer at either. I imagine outside of prestigious private preschools that supposedly get you into Harvard, getting in would be more a function of availability in your district. Portland used to provide comprehensive preschool to low-income children, so in that sense attendance required minimal organization or effort on the part of the parents.

  5. David Deming has done a very impressive study on Head Start (nothing special there) showing very impressive effects over the long term (not mediated via test scores). I’ll link if I can find it. There are sufficient randomised and natural experiments that the beneficial effects of full day preschool, even not-that-great (headstart) on low income kids is really no longer open to reasonable dispute, nor is the cost-benefit analysis EXCEPT for the time discounting issue (basically, “who cares about the benefits to people in 25 years time when I will no longer be running for office, or, if I am, no one will give me credit?”).
    Preschool for kids whose parents want them to go to Harvard? Not so clear. Might be better staying home with them.

  6. I thought Head Start gains fade out by the end of 3rd grade. Have they fixed it?
    There’s a video here talking about how to stop fade-out. It’s pretty rah-rah for Weast of Montgomery, MD (who I know not everybody is a big fan of), but it has some interesting material.

    In the video, they talk about how pre-K needs to be aligned with 3rd grade and on up. The school needs to know what kids have covered already, so that they will neither be over-challenged nor under-challenged (i.e., our old friend the Zone of Proximal Development). Weast says it’s not good enough to have full day kindergarten–you have to be thinking about what you are trying to achieve with that time.

  7. “Early Childhood Intervention and Life-Cycle Skill Development: Evidence from Head Start. 2009. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1(3): 111-34.
    This paper provides new evidence on the long-term benefits of Head Start using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. I compare siblings who differ in their participation in the program, controlling for a variety of pre-treatment covariates. I estimate that Head Start participants gain 0.23 standard deviations on a summary index of young adult outcomes. This closes one third of the gap between children with median and bottom quartile family income, and is about 80 percent as large as model programs such as Perry Preschool. The long-term impact for disadvantaged children is large despite “fade out” of test score gains.”
    (haven’t read the paper yet).

  8. ” you have to be thinkIng about what you are going to do with that time”
    Yes and yes to this Amy. It has to be thoughtful and tied into subsequent education.
    And the goal wouldn’t be getting middle class kids into Harvard but at a minimum changing the life course of families who would otherwise be tied to the system.

  9. The head start *gains in test scores* fade by third grade: hence my parenthetical comment. Deming measures things like high school graduation, going to college, earnings age 26, involvement in criminal justice system as a teen, teen motherhood, etc. You know, things that actually matter.
    Oh, didn’t read bj’s comment, but will submit this anyway.

  10. my comment was a link w/ the abstract from Deming’s study. Looks good, and I hope to see more long term outcomes data from all the educational studies. Actually, that’s been a weakness of clinical research,. We need to know if interventions help with our real life goals, not with improving numbers on our measurement instruments.

  11. Yes. Its a huge problem. But it is hard to know what life-course outcomes to focus on, and you need data-sets that are pretty fine grained and longitudinal. Experiments would be phenomenally expensive. Deming is at the forefront of people trying to do this sort of work. and there’s more to come.

  12. Yup, it’s hard. But, the excuse can’t be to look for your keys where the streetlights are. Maybe we’re going to just have to test fewer interventions more slowly.
    I used to think that the measuring instruments might be enough (i.e. lower blood sugar, find tumors, lower bad cholesterol), but in all those examples, we’re finding that the long term goal (which is easier to define than in education, mostly not dying) hasn’t really panned out.
    The bandwagon to use testing to measure education has the same flaw, and doing the research right, rather than conveniently has to be a good thing.
    My current frustration is the small scale studies on “brain-boosting” software that then morph into start up companies offering digital snake oil. The small scale studies show some small significant increase in an easy to measure variable and then promise huge educational gains. There’s no follow-up of subsequent claims (no regulation, pretty much, unlike drugs).

  13. Oh, I completely agree, I wasn’t making excuses. I’m currently working at a foundation on a project with social scientists from a number of disciplines (psych, soc, econ), to figure out how to make more good studies that focus on the important outcomes happen (with the idea of developing a research funding stream dedicated to this).

  14. I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m still wondering if the sibling-based comparisons are all that much of an improvement on previous studies. My last math class was in 11th grade, but here are a few thoughts:
    1. Siblings can be very different in temperament. One of my kids is the darling of the elementary school–this year one of the upper grade elementary teachers was joking about how she and a colleague would be fighting over who got him in her class. Meanwhile, his older sister was very lucky not to get expelled in 1st grade. If one of my kids went to preschool and the other did not, it might have been because one refused to go and it wasn’t worthwhile fighting. (Note here that preschool, being optional, is very different from grade school. With grade school, you have a natural constant (or whatever you call it), because practically all children go to school, that being the law. But with preschool, going or not going may well be because of inherent qualities of the child.)
    2. Aside from child temperament, birth order itself can create a different family environment for each child, both because of birth-order roles (responsible, rigid oldest child, rebellious middle child, immature youngest child, etc.) and because the parents themselves are not the same as when they start. They may be older, tireder and less energetic, but also more mellow, and may have made a lot more connections to their community. The family environment is in constant flux. The home that I grew up in was not at all the same one that my youngest sibling grew up in.
    3. Gender.
    4. Potty-training. A lot of preschool programs will not take an untrained child. Needless to say, a child who is not potty-trained at 4 may well be a handful in other respects.
    5. An immature child (for instance, one with a speech problem) may be kept out of preschool.
    6. A child who is sick a lot may be kept out of preschool. (I don’t know about 3 and 4-year-olds, but a lot of 5-year-olds seem to have persistent, mysterious tummy aches.)
    A possible reading for the differences in outcomes between 1) non-preschool going kids of less educated mothers and 2) non-preschool going kids of educated mothers is that in both cases, the children or families may have some sort of problem precluding preschool attendance, but in the case of 2, the families are able to remediate the problems using their family resources. So, the answer to the low performance of 1 may not actually be preschool, but some other intervention or set of interventions (perhaps based on what the families in 2 are doing).

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