Monday, February 3, 2014

Universal Preschool Is a Grade-A Debacle

Mayor Bill de Blasio is picking up Michael Bloomberg's mantle of paternalistic governing. Last week, de Blasio went to Albany to try to convince Governor Cuomo to increase personal income taxes on the rich to fund a universal pre-K education program for the city of New York (see NYC Office of the Mayor's report here). With all the policy problems in New York, why is de Blasio advocating for universal preschool?

According to the report, "high-quality pre-K is among the most effective ways to reduce economic inequality (p. 2)." To put this in economic parlance, education is a positive consumption externality. Looking at the graph below, there is a certain amount of a good, e.g., education, that is consumed in the private, unregulated market. When it comes to positive externalities, there is an underconsumption in comparison to the socially optimal level of output. To compensate for this insufficient amount of education, the traditional response has been the government intervening in attempts to increase the amount of education, thereby increasing the output to the marginal social benefit.

After all, who doesn't like a more educated, more productive populace that not only decreases the need for long-term social spending, but also contributes to the continuation and progress of a democratic society? For being a developed nation, I'm often surprised at the quality of education in this country, and thusly would like to see more educated citizens. Perhaps there is a valid point in saying that universal preschool is an investment in the future of New York City (p. 3). Perhaps the investment being made is a bad one. Two questions I would like to answer here in order to get a better idea of just how good of investment universal preschool are the following:
  1. Is preschool the investment in human capital that everyone thinks it is?
  2. Even if preschool is a proper investment in human capital, should the government run a universal preschool program?
Before asking whether we should have the government universalize preschool, we should not simply assume that "more education is good," and instead discern whether preschool has a net benefit (see video below of Cato Institute panel of preschool education research). One of the most oft-cited studies of success is the Perry Preschool Project. The sample size from this study is too small to draw meaningful conclusions. That's why I prefer this study (Reynolds et al., 2011) that tracked 1,400 children in Chicago's inner city school program to find that those who attended preschool were 3-9 percent more likely to graduate high school and 22 percent less likely to be arrested before the age of 28. There is a question of whether the children who attended differed from those in the control group. The issues with any of these success stories is that the programs offered were high-intensive, targeted, high-quality programs, which are far and few in between when compared to the typical preschool program. However, a recent meta-study by the Society for Research in Child Development shows that early education is indeed a profitable investment.

We also have to remember that not all preschools produce the same results. According to a University of Virginia study (Pianta et al, 2009, p. 50), the gains in the average preschool are nowhere near the gains in high-quality preschools in which the achievement gap is not closed nowhere near as proponents would like to think. I still have some skepticism about whether preschool doesn't come with deleterious effects. According to a Stanford study (Loeb et al, 2006), those who spend many hours in preschool have stunted social and emotional development. Similar, negative results can be shown from a Quebecois study (Baker et al, 2005). Regimenting and regulating a child's time like this has the ability to erode a child's cognitive skills, so at the very least, we should recognize that preschool comes with marginal diminishing utility. Also, I can argue that such factors as the frequency with which one talks to their parents, the diet parents feed their child, and overall involvement in a child's life do more for a child's social development than preschool education. Too much institutionalized time severs time from one's parents, which can also cause developmental issues.

For the sake of this argument, let's assume that preschool can be beneficial, provided that it is done so in moderation. Should we allow the government to be actively involved in this endeavor? Aside from running a national demonstration project that utilizes randomized design, we can look at precedent to determine efficacy. The beauty here is that I don't even have to say "Hey, look at the government's dismal handling of K-12 education" because the federal government has been involved in early education programming since 1965. Head Start was started by the Johnson administration, and ever since, it has been a complete failure. Even by the admission of the United States Department Health and Human Services, the bureaucratic agency that handles Head Start, "the benefits of access to Head Start at age 4 are largely absent by the 1st grade for the program population as a whole (p. xxxviiii)." What good is a preschool program like Head Start if it has no lasting effects? How does that help the poor? Maybe a "cookie cutter" approach doesn't work. Perhaps providing the states with block grants and putting universal preschool on the state level would work better……or not.

The issue of fade-out is not solely confined to the Head Start program. Tennessee also used random experimental design in its universal preschool program, but also shows no lasting, long-term effects (Assessing the Impact of Tennessee's Pre-Kindergarten Program, p. 34), and actually show that the effects have largely diminished by the second grade (p. 6). This is important because the Tennessee program is a "gold standard" in the sense that Tennessee met nine out of the ten benchmarks for NIEER's education standards.

Additionally, we should take a look at the Georgia and Oklahoma cases because those program have been around the longest in America. Those who point to Oklahoma as a success do so on the basis of regression discontinuity design (RDD), which compares the scores of those who just completed the program with age-adjusted scores of students who just began the program. RDD does nothing to answer the question of whether government intervention adds value to preschool. Also, RDD is a flawed methodology because it is not a truly randomized experiment because the parents of the so-called control group are already cognizant of the fact that their children will soon enter government schooling. Even so, looking at test scores, Oklahoma has not made gains in reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In the Oklahoma case, there is no persistence of the early gains made (Hill et al, 2012), and the same can be said about Georgia (Henry et al, 2005), especially since the costs of Georgia's program outweigh the benefits (Fitzpatrick, 2008, p. 31). With Georgia and Oklahoma, any success in academic achievement is marginal and is limited to certain sub-groups. Those over at Oxford (Merrell and Tymms, 2011) found that Sure Start, England's equivalent of Head Start, showed that preschool education had no lasting effects on children.

I think we should ask ourselves with this fade out effect takes place at around the third grade level. Perhaps it's the Matthew effect. Perhaps it is the disarray of the K-12 education system. Finland starts formal education at age seven, and it is touted as a great success in education, so perhaps instead of blaming the problem on there not being enough preschool education, we should reflect on the state of the the K-12 education system and how mismanaged it has become.

Here are some policy alternatives: we could create school vouchers for preschoolers to better target economically disadvantaged children, reform and revamp K-12 education so perhaps the benefits of preschool education have more staying power, eliminate ineffective or duplicative programs so we can stop the crowding out effect, an early education tax credit to incentivize quality education, or figure out ways to increase parental involvement in their children's lives because education begins at home. Whatever the policy alternative, before investing into a program that will cost $98.4B over the next decade if done on the federal level (don't forget that de Blasio hasn't put a price tag on his pet project of statewide universal preschool), maybe, just maybe, we need to ask ourselves whether the government should be expanding a program with what on a good day can be classified as dubious success.


  1. It sounds like the government could do the most good with an ad campaign to discourage all preschool. Kids are clearly born on a good or bad path.

    "figure out ways to increase parental involvement in their children's lives because education begins at home"
    Such as mandating extremely generous maternity leave policies or providing an entitlement to mothers that allows them to work less?

    1. "Kids are clearly born on a good or bad path." Two things, the first being that an excessive amount of preschool actually hinders children (i.e., there is a point in which marginal utility is negative). The second is that there are those out there who would rather have the government parent for them. Between genetics and home environment, there is only so much that preschool (or a formal education, for that matter) can do, and I think proponents of universal preschool should recognize that.

      As for mandating maternity leave or a direct cash transfer for economically disadvantaged parents, I suppose I would have to leave those policy alternatives for another blog entry another time since I would rather give you a more thorough answer on those policy alternatives.

  2. Great blog post. It’s useful information.There are a lot of good resources here. I am sure I will visit this place again soon.It help me very much to solve some problems. Its opportunity are so fantastic and working style so speedy. I think it may be help all of you. Thanks.
    Play School in Champapet

  3. Thanks for informative post. I am pleased to say this post has helped me save many hours of browsing other similar posts just to find what I was looking for. Thank you
    Preschool in Mallapur

  4. Yes, it’s true that not all preschools produce the same results. But well-known preschools like Montclare Children's School can turn out to be the best option for your children. Montclare Children’s School offers a secure and stimulating learning environment. For more information, visit