Questioning the Benefits of Preschool For the Middle Class

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.

Six states have mandated preschool for all. Many others, including Virginia, are moving in that direction. It makes sense to me. I have never seen evidence the preschool hurts anybody.

I would like to hear from readers who think the movement is going too far, and why they think so.

Dear Extra Credit:

I was the principal of George Washington Middle School in Alexandria eight years ago. I loved my two years there, but the traffic sent me back home. I am currently the principal of T.C. Roberson High School in Asheville, N.C.

In all my 33 years in public school education, 24 in administration, I have done everything I can to get teachers to save paper. How can I get teachers to save paper, and what can they do differently in the classroom to help?

Rob Weinkle

This is a deceptively simple question of great importance. I have not encountered any memorable solutions in the schools I have visited, but I bet there are some. Anybody?

Dear Extra Credit:

Regarding your discussion of demanding too much in school ["When Achievement Push Comes to Shove," Sept. 11], I had to retake a physics class at the junior level in college because I had not reached the relevant developmental marker. I aced the class a year later and gained so much insight in such a short time that I immediately changed my major to physics.

I'm not sure what to make of one parent's simplistic statement, "Now I have a boy who is not enthusiastic" because he had to take a half-step back in math. Middle school is fraught with pitfalls. Who's to say which one the kid's fallen into?

My son lost any enthusiasm he might have had at the beginning of last year because he didn't realize the importance of simple hard work and fell way behind from the start. Ignore for the moment the fact that teachers were pummeling students with too much work. He was doing no work. Once he started doing any work, he gained self-confidence and became interested, perhaps even enthusiastic, about what he was doing.

Beyond minimum standards, at some level I believe in the lottery approach to education: "You gotta play to win." If you teach it to them, they might become enthusiastic. Once they become enthusiastic, they practically teach themselves. But if you don't teach it to them, there's roughly zero chance they'll become enthusiastic.

Alex Matthews

Graduate of

Montgomery Blair High School

and University of Maryland

Sunnyvale, Calif.

Dear Extra Credit:

I saw your Oct. 9 column ["Want to Read About Home-Schooling? Tell Us All About It"]. Please do not publish anything from home-schoolers. I fear that, if the government discovers the true value of the benefits we provide to our children, it will tax it.

Shhhh. Be very, very quiet.

Ronald Robinson

Northern Virginia

I deleted the smiley emoticon at the end of your intriguing message, but I get your point. I will try to be careful.

Dear Extra Credit:

Regarding the debate over group grades ["The Pitfalls of Grading Group Assignments," Aug. 21], my daughter was always the girl (it is almost always a girl) who was the organizer, the puller-together and the team leader of any group project she was in.

The teachers knew this and would rotate her around the class so everyone would get the benefit and feel the heat equally. As she progressed through her academic career, it became plain she was a natural leader. She graduated from Stanford and is an officer in the U.S. Army.

Brenda Clough


You make a vital point. Group projects can be hard to assess and annoying to some parents and students. But they allow children to develop skills and confidence in cooperation and leadership, which become valuable later in life.

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