THERE IS a big move on to put millions of additional American children into preschool — and tens of thousands more in Massachusetts.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”
Governor Patrick has similarly called for “universal access to high-quality early education.”
Preschools can do more than almost anything else to fight poverty; ideally, these programs supply the educational stimulation that disadvantaged young children often fail to get at home.
What remains to be seen is whether the expanded programs Obama and Patrick are proposing will be organized in ways that make them successful — or merely reinforce the deficiencies and inequities that exist between school districts.
Many anti-poverty programs fail, but the best preschool programs change lives for the better. My former teacher, the economist James Heckman, has extensively analyzed the Perry Preschool in Michigan, a program that provided two years of active learning to disadvantaged 3-year-olds during the 1960s.
Children who were randomly selected into the program received a boost in their IQs when they were young, and in their test scores when they were teenagers.
Forty-year-old men who had gone through the program as children experienced, on average, about seven fewer weeks of unemployment per year.
The program also reduced criminal behavior — a finding that lies behind Obama’s claim that “every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
Yet the success of a few programs only proves that preschool can work, not that a large federal or state preschool program will. Replicating success is never easy, and the record of Head Start, the flagship national preschool program, should at least make us wary of simply pouring more money into existing public initiatives.
As critics of Obama’s proposal have noted, one congressionally mandated review appeared to find that Head Start provides few longer-term benefits. The improvement in test scores and health outcomes that children experienced while in Head Start had disappeared by first grade. Earlier studies showed that the boost Head Start gave to test scores gradually faded, especially among African Americans who later attended weak schools.
Because Head Start has nevertheless been associated with low crime rates, reduced mortality, and more employment — and because of a dearth of better anti-poverty alternatives — the drive by Obama and Patrick for more pre-K still looks like a good bet. What’s needed, though, is a preschool program that provides considerable scope for experimentation, evidence-gathering, and parental control. Less imaginatively, the president’s current plan will allocate funds to states to “be distributed to local school districts and other partner providers to implement the program.”
Yet if early childhood programs are run through local school districts, then children will end up locked in their existing district — which will favor children in well-off suburbs while harming their counterparts in poorer areas. Unfortunately, Patrick too seems inclined mainly to increase support for existing preschool providers.
The better option is to let parents choose from a variety of systems. Imagine a larger preschool system that works like a national charter school program — a network of alternatives that provide varied approaches to the problem — rather than like today’s Head Start program or the public school system.
If oversubscribed charter pre-K programs had to allocate spaces by lottery, then a 3-year-old in Dorchester would have the same options as a child in Brookline. Public providers can also compete — and many, such as the Boston public schools, could compete well — but they shouldn’t receive preferential treatment.
A properly monitored charter-like pre-K system can make it more likely that successful programs will grow, and that failed programs would disappear.
As evidence mounts of what makes individual pre-K programs work well, parents will be in a better position to select good programs — and states will be able to shut down underperformers. We should invest in 3-year-olds, but we must also respect the limits of the current preschool system.