While enrollment of children in pre-schools and kindergarten is for the most part optional, “early learning” advocates and the daycare lobbyists continue in their efforts to make preschool mandatory. These folks insist that pre-k programs promote “school readiness” and if you want your child to have the greatest opportunity for success in school– you must start them early! But are they right? While research is on-going, to date there is not much evidence to support an “early-childhood education” position.
There is one program that is often cited as a success story – the Carolina Abecedarian Project – where “at-risk” children were enrolled at age 6 months in a costly all-day, five-day-a-week, 12 months a year – four and a half year program. The benefit to the participants is still the subject of research and the cost of such a program renders it entirely unfeasible.
Darcy Olsen, researcher at Goldwater Institute, has noted that the huge expansion of early childhood education since 1965 did not yield improved outcome for elementary school students. Back in 1965, just five percent of three-year-olds and 14 percent of four-year olds were enrolled in pre-K programs. Today, those figures are 39 percent and 66 percent respectively. Yet according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth-grade scores in reading, science and math have stagnated since the early 1970s and in fact, scores have fallen (even as the nation tripled spending in education). Interestingly, American fourth-graders outperform their peers in countries that do have universal pre-K programs (Italy, France, and Germany).
The existing research on the benefits of early childhood education show that there is only a short-term positive effect for “at-risk” students and there is “fade out” by grade three. Yet there are adverse effects for “mainstream” children.
There is no evidence to warrant the expense or the potential fallout of removing children prematurely from home to be part of a pre-school/ pre-K program.
As Darcy Olsen cautions:
“At heart is the question of in whose hands the responsibility for young children should rest. On that question, plans to entrench the state further into early education cannot be squared with a free society that cherishes the primacy of the family over the state.”
Studies on pre-school and pre-k programs:
Pre-kindergarten students are expelled from their programs at rates more than three times as high as those for students attending kindergarten through twelfth-grade classes. Drawing into focus the question: “How early should children be started in school?” Yale University Office of Public Affairs, “Pre-K Students Expelled at More Than Three Times the Rate of K-12 Students,” Yale Medical News (May 2005): 1-2.
On average, the earlier children enter preschool, the slower their pace of social development, while cognitive skills are stronger when children are first enrolled between the ages of two and three. Moderate exposure to preschool helps youngsters develop their cognitive abilities in pre-reading and math. But extended absence from their parents (more than six hours a day) also appears to heighten behavioral problems, such as a lack of cooperation, sharing and engagement in classroom tasks, most notably among kids from more affluent families. Loeb, Susanna, Margaret Bridges, Daphna Bassok, Bruce Fuller and Russell W. Rumbergerd. “How much is too much? The influence of preschool centers on children’s social and cognitive development.” Economics of Education Review 26, 1 (February 2007): 52-66. http://ideas.repec.org/p/nbr/nberwo/11812.html
During kindergarten, whatever advantages daycare or preschool children may enjoy in math and reading become statistically insignificant in tests with and without background controls. During the first grade, the daycare/ preschool children have significantly lower math scores. In both grades, these children scored significantly lower in the “approaches to learning” measure, which measured teacher perception of student attentiveness and persistence, a reversal of what was found in the cross-sectional test. Lisa N. Hickman, “Who Should Care for Our Children? The Effects of Home versus Center Care on Child Cognition and Social Adjustment,” Journal of Family Issues 27 (May 2006): 652-684.
Any positive effect from early-learning programs disappears by 3rd grade and you are left with aggression and other behavioral problems. Children in U.S. (lower grades) out do children in European Ed system which offers universal pre-K programs. Formal early education at best yields only short-term effects with at-risk students, effects of which “fade out” by grade three, and at worst yields adverse effects with mainstream children. Darcy Olsen and Jennifer Martin, “Assessing Proposals for Preschool and Kindergarten: Essential Information for Parents, Taxpayers, and Policymakers,” Policy Report No. 201, February 8, 2005, Goldwater Institute, Phoenix, Arizona.
Daycare/ preschool children exhibit poorer social skills throughout kindergarten. Such children have worse self-control, have worse interpersonal skills, and externalize problems more than their peers under parental care. The only social measure (internalizing problem behaviors) where these children outperformed their parental-care peers in the first model is now insignificant. Lisa N. Hickman, “Who Should Care for Our Children? The Effects of Home versus Center Care on Child Cognition and Social Adjustment,” Journal of Family Issues 27 (May 2006): 652-684.
An HHS study 5,000 of three and four years olds enrolled in the “Head Start” program showed that in language skills, literacy, math skills and school performance there was no improvement. Head Start Impact Study, Final Report, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation. January 2010. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/hs/impact_study/reports/impact_study/hs_impact_study_final.pdf