Research Shows: Preschool Edition

The March 1, 2013 Iowa House Democrats newsletter includes the following item, titled “Research Shows Positive Effects of Preschool.”

With legislators considering an expansion of early childhood education this year, lawmakers received more research showing the positive effects of preschool for 3 and 4 year-old children from Early Childhood Iowa. Some of the highlights of the research include:

        • Studies show that a universal, high-quality preschool program would increase the employment rates of state residents by 1.3%.
        • A high-quality pre-kindergarten program that served both 3 and 4-year-olds would yield relatively quick budgetary savings and would begin to pay for itself through reduced special education costs and reduced juvenile justice costs.
        • Within 42 years, the total benefits of such a program, including reduced crime rates, higher income earnings by participants, higher tax revenues, savings from reduced grade retention and special education usage, would outweigh costs by a ratio of 8.4 to 1.

As usual, there is no research cited for these claims, but I think they probably refer to the Perry Preschool Project, a preschool program trial conducted in the 1960s involving 128 children (64 assigned to the control group and 64 assigned to the treatment group).

I am skeptical of claims promising that spending one dollar now will save us a specific number of dollars in the future.  Even so, there is no reason to think that the results of this particular research program (involving disadvantaged children) mean that universal preschool programs (involving all children) can produce these same results.  And there is no reason to think that the results of this particular research program (involving an average child-teacher ratio of 6:1 and 1.5 hour weekly home visits) mean that less intensive, universal preschool programs can produce these same results.

See the evidence of the effectiveness of the Perry Preschool Project at the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy here, and note the disclaimer “that this was a demonstration project, and it is not yet known if the results can be replicated on a broader scale in typical classroom settings.”

There might be reasons to support expanded access to preschool (and reasons not to–like getting an earlier start on PBIS and high-stakes testing), but this research doesn’t seem to be one of them.