Jun 30, 2011

Preschool is NOT the Panacea Portrayed in Study

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Proponents of an ever larger government role in early childhood care and education are using results from a new study of poor, minority children in Chicago from Arthur Reynolds at the University of Minnesota  to bolster their claims that public preschool is helpful for these children and that these benefits last well into adulthood.  Here is a quote from the study abstract:

“Findings demonstrate support for the enduring effects of sustained school-based early education to the end of the third decade of life.”

The media reviews of this study have been absolutely gushing, especially in Minnesota where there is a huge effort to expand early childhood programs and increase government regulation of private childcare and preschool programs. Here is an example:

“And if there is an Exhibit A to a redress, it should start with the recently published findings of University of Minnesota researcher Arthur J. Reynolds and a group of associates…

Described as the longest follow-up ever to an established large-scale early childhood program, the research focused on participants in a publicly funded early childhood development program that began in preschool and provides up to six years of service in the Chicago public schools.”

Statistically Significant, But Not Practically Important Differences:

The full study was reviewed.  The study compared 989 low income minority children who participated in the Chicago Parent Child Centers (CPC) public preschool program for one or two years and up to four years of extra help in grades K-3 in the Chicago public schools to 550 low income minority children, 15% of whom participated in Head Start, with the rest cared for at home and who all participated in all-day kindergarten and received the same sort of help in grades K-3.    There were several differences reported as statistically significant between the group that had preschool (CPC) and the non-preschool group, but as reported by Lindsey Tanner of the Associated Press, the overall results for these kids are still “dismal:”

“To be sure, the challenges facing the children in both groups were still insurmountable for many. As adults, the average annual income for those who went to preschool is less than $12,000 and almost half of them had been arrested as adults. As dismal as those outcomes [are], the numbers were still better than for the group that didn’t attend preschool.”

Here are some of those differences that really need to be examined as to whether they are practically significant and worth the cost and government expansion of preschool programs (The first number is for the preschool CPC kids and the second number is for the comparison group):

Highest grade completed (12.15 vs. 11.88) – This is less than a third of one year difference or less than a semester.

Attendance in a 4-year college (14.7% vs. 11.2%) – This is only a 3.5% difference.

Average annual income in 2007 dollars ($11,582 vs. $10,796) – As noted in the AP story above, both groups, were earning less than $12,000 per year with the preschool group earning only $786 more.

The study admits, “No differences were detected for degree completion, employment, or a combined measure.”

Any arrest (47.9% vs. 54.3%) – Also pointed out in the AP story above, around half of both groups were arrested, though the preschool group was 6% lower.

The study also admits, “No differences were detected for the number of arrests, arrests for violence, or convictions. School-age and extended intervention were unrelated to justice involvement. For public aid and family outcomes, no meaningful differences were found.”

No Discussion of Parental Involvement:

The whole premise of this Reynolds study as well as all of his previous studies of the CPC is that any improvement in academic achievement or life course of these poor, minority children is due mainly or completely to the preschool program.  Yet, even if the preschool program alone does account for these changes, he fails to account for the very important element of that preschool program – the parental involvement element. The CPC program requires parents to be involved for one half day per week.   Researchers have pointed out the importance of parental involvement to previous phases of this CPC program:

“It is possible that parental involvement explains more of the variance in outcome among inner-city children than do structured programs. . . . If policy makers mistakenly accept the conclusion that preschool intervention results in less criminal activity later, they may mistakenly invest in these programs when the money might be better invested in parenting skill programs and other interventions to increase parental involvement.” – Mathew D. Thompson, “Early Childhood Educational Intervention and Long-Term Developmental Outcomes,” Letters, The Journal of American Medical Association, Vol. 286, No. 15, October 17, 2001.

Professor William Jeynes at the University of California Long Beach did an extensive review of fifty-two studies looking at the importance of parental involvement to the academic success of inner city children and found:

“A meta-analysis is undertaken, including 52 studies, to determine the influence of parental involvement on the educational outcomes of urban secondary school children…The results indicate that the influence of parental involvement overall is significant for secondary school children. Parental involvement as a whole affects all the academic variables under study by about 0.5 to 0.55 of a standard deviation unit. The positive effects of parental involvement hold for both White and minority children.”

It therefore seems that it is difficult to know whether the improvements, however significant one considers them, that were seen in the preschool group were due to the parental involvement component of the preschool program or other interventions as a result of enrollment of the preschool program.  If the parental involvement component is as significant as research suggests, then the focus of those who want to expand government run preschool is misplaced.

More Tragic Consequences of Single Parent Families

Only mentioned, but not really discussed in the CPC studies is the fact that almost all of the children in either the preschool or comparison groups were from single parent families (76% and 74% respectively).  Based on the results of multiple studies, it is this author’s opinion, that the reason that both the CPC and comparison group had such “dismal” overall results is because so many of these children are from single parent families, not because they are poor. The Reynolds research did not really compare children that were from single parent families versus those that were from intact families. This again brings into the spotlight Jeynes’ seminal research on 20,000 high school students, showing that  Black and Hispanic students that were from intact families and were religious had no achievement gap when compared to White students.  It would be very interesting and important both for Reynolds to do further research on the effect of intact families on the Chicago sample and for the Jeynes research to examine and include economic and medical well-being data after high school. The important thing to remember though is that the Jeynes study is the only research showing a complete erasure of the achievement gap based on family characteristics and individual religious commitment without any discussion of government preschool or K-12 programs.  At the same time, the federal government has spent over $2 TRILLION on K-12 education funds not to mention about $85 BILLION on Head Start over the last 30-40 years with no real narrowing of that achievement gap.

High Costs for Program

In this time of a hugely overburdened economy and enormous deficits at both the state and federal levels, one must also consider costs for this program.  The study states:

“In 2011 dollars, the average costs per child were as follows: preschool ($9,233), school-age over and above regular instruction ($4,113), and preschool plus school-age relative to lesser program services ($5,600).”

According to a 2010 Cato Institute study on school spending, the City of Chicago actually spends $15,875 per K-12 student, the fourth highest per pupil spending in the nation. The preschool costs are 58% of the actual per pupil costs for K-12 students.   Then adding the extra costs of the extra CPC program to the regular per pupil funding, the taxpayers are paying $19,988 for the school age program and $21,475 for the preschool plus school age program.  When states and school districts all over the nation have to make significant and painful cuts in teaching staff and programs, can they really afford to increase spending by another nearly $20,000 per pupil and increasing K-12 spending by 26% or 35% for the extra aid to get the kinds of questionable yields described above?

Society needs to ask whether these huge and unsustainable per pupil increases are justified to obtain such small, not really practically noticeable improvements.   For instance, should taxpayers pay $18,466 for two years of preschool plus $22,400 of extra costs over the 4th highest per pupil K-12 cost of $63,500 for 4 years (K-3) of extra services only to obtain an increase of a mere $786 per year in income with the preschool educated students still remaining in grinding poverty of less than $12,000/year?  That is, is it right to be spending an extra $40,866 of public funds over 6 years (2 years of preschool and K-3)  for the preschool student to earn an extra $4716 over 6 years and still be well under the poverty level?  This seems to contradict the idea from economist Arthur Rolnik used by the apologists for government early childhood expansion that every dollar invested in early childhood programs yields a $16 return to taxpayers.


In summary, there are multiple problems with the Reynolds study and its implications:

1)      The differences between the preschool group and the comparison group while considered by Reynolds and Co. as being statistically significant are not really practically significant as far as eradicating poverty or producing graduates that can be self-sustaining without government aid.

2)      The economic yield is questionable at best and strongly negative at worst if one considers small marginal income increases for preschool participants, the still high rates of arrest and incarceration, and the lack of differences at all in many other areas compared to the high costs of the program over and above the already high costs for regular K-12 public education in Chicago.

3)      The very important factor of parental involvement in academic and other success was not really considered in the Reynolds research as to whether it was the preschool program, the parental involvement aspect, some combination, or something else that was responsible for the small improvements that did occur.

4)      The study also fails to adequately discuss the strongly negative effects of being raised in a single parent family and does not really analyze the differences in academics and life course between those in the study that are from single parent families and those who are from intact families.

5)      Even if one believed that the preschool program itself was responsible for the the stated improvements and that they are actually significant, the funding sources from both the state and federal governments are under tremendous pressure due to very high deficits and unsustainable spending patterns.


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