Questioning the Benefits of Preschool For the Middle Class

(By Julie Zhu)
By Jay Mathews
Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

Have you considered starting a discussion on the advantages (real and imagined) of pre-kindergarten? One of the assertions of universal preschool advocates is that it improves K-12 performance. There is significant evidence with at-risk kids that it makes them better prepared for school. But there is some significant evidence that the effect wears off after several grades.

Most studies citing grandiose "returns on investment" examined only the effect on very severely at-risk kids, with programs that cost up to $15,000 per child. There is little or no significant evidence of the same effect with middle- and upper-class kids. There have, in fact, been some studies suggesting that too much time in preschool creates behavioral problems.

Attempting to serve middle-class and at-risk kids with the same program might be, in the words of the former director of the U.S. Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, "a sure recipe for a new middle-class benefit that shortchanges the poor."

But, as a board member of Fairfax Futures admitted to me and as the Virginia secretary of education said in a public meeting a year or two ago, the middle class has to be included to build the political momentum to get a program passed.

Christian N. Braunlich

Fairfax County

The impressive academic performance of impoverished African American children who graduated from the Perry Preschool program in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s has become the gold standard for preschool advocates. Those children did significantly better in school and in life than similar children who attended Head Start programs, but they had better qualified and better paid staff, and as you said in a follow-up message, those results have not been replicated.

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